By Vernon Robison
Moapa Valley Progress
After more than four hours of discussion on Thursday, the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) board approved a permit allowing NV Energy to expand a landfill for coal ash waste at Reid Gardner Power Station in Moapa.
NV Energy officials argued for the permit saying that the expansion would move coal ash and other solid waste products out away from the Muddy River flood plain and further from the residents in the nearby Moapa Paiute Reservation village. It would also allow continued operation of the coal-fired plant which provides electricity for 335,000 Nevada homes. The current landfill area at Reid Gardner is expected to reach its capacity within the next two and a half years.
The expanded landfill is proposed to be located on the desert mesa area to the south of the plant at more than 100 feet above underlying groundwater and approximately two miles away from the Paiute reservation residents. Under the application, the landfill capacity would be expanded to accommodate more than 10 million cubic yards of coal ash and existing pond solids, enough for up to 33 more years of coal-ash disposal at the plant.
Moapa tribal chairman Darren Daboda expressed opposition to the proposed landfill expansion on behalf of the tribe.
“As the population nearest to the plant, we find this application woefully inadequate to public health,” Daboda said. “Our people have lived with waste from this facility blowing into our community daily. The SNHD staff have failed to address our complaints. We see this expansion as an increased risk. At best it is a nuisance, and at worst a serious health hazard to our people.”
Environmental groups also spoke against granting the expansion. Dan Galpern, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center who spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, argued that the permit application was incomplete and that certain details and background information had not been made available to the public. He claimed that NV Energy had made a last-minute attempt to modify the application in what he called a substantial way.
“These are secret documents on which you are expected to make a decision and the public is expected to keep quiet,” he told the board.
Board Chairwoman Linda Strickland, of Boulder City, took strong exception to Galpern’s implication that the health district staff was somehow colluding with NV Energy.
“As an attorney myself, I understand the need at times to make allegations in taking a strategic position while representing a client,” Strickland said. “But I believe your comments here on this matter are highly disingenuous.”
Engineering Geologist, Elliott Lipps, who was also commenting on behalf of Sierra Club, stated that the application fell short of protecting the waters of the state. He said that it was short on details in setting trigger levels for monitoring groundwater contamination and in setting forth specific actions to be taken if such trigger levels were reached.
But NV Energy officials stated that these perameters and action plans were already in place through work done with the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP).
“We have already worked with the NDEP in developing an extensive plan regarding all of this,” said Tony Garcia, NV Energy Environmental Services Manager. “That plan is in place and it is fully enforceable.”
Board member Kathleen Boutin expressed apprehension about the SNHD being lead to overstep its bounds in over-regulating such matters. “I have concerns that the Western Law Center wants us to put regulations on an area where we don’t really belong,” Boutin said.
County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani took issue with the timeframe implied by the request. She pointed out that NV Energy had a green light from the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to operate Reid Gardner for only another 20-25 years. But the landfill would be permitted out to 33 more years.
“I don’t see any justification for exceeding the timeframe that the PUC has given them,” she said.
Garcia responded that the extended timeframe for the landfill would allow for the operation of the plant through the expected 2025 timeframe and also give additional time, after decommissioning, for dismantling and final cleanup of the site.
Mesquite City Councilwoman Donna Fairchild, who sits on the SNHD board, pointed out to the board that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is currently undergoing a process of tightening up extensive new regulations on these types of operations. These recommendations are expected to specify more strict contaminant levels, liner requirements and dates for compliance at coal-ash landfills nationwide. Fairchild stated that the EPA was expecting to end public comment on this matter next month.
“I’d ask that this request be continued for 180 days to allow more time for that information to come forward,” Fairchild said.
“No one knows what the EPA will do or when,” said Strickland. “The laws are continually evolving and we don’t have a crystal ball. It is possible that in 10 years that they won’t even be able to operate these things anymore. But we can’t deal with all of these things as a board here. We can’t see all of that.”
But Guinchigliani agreed with Fairchild that the matter should be held for 180 days. She said that this would also allow time for the SNHD recommendations to be tightened up and for the background information to be fully made available to the board and the public.
SNHD Board member Stavros Anthony felt that it would be pointless to come back and go through the entire process again. He said that he would not support a motion to hold the item for 180 days.
“NV Energy is in full compliance with regulations and there have been no problems with the current landfill,” Anthony said. “I have never seen an agenda item with so many conditions.”
“I think that this is no longer about the landfill but about coal fired plants,” Anthony continued. “If we hold this for 180 days, and open it to more public comment, they will bring up 100 other things and this will just be continued to death. I’ve heard justication today and I am ready to support it.”
Legal council for SNHD told board members that they would be on shaky legal ground in holding the item for six months.
“The applicant has a right to a timely proceeding,” he said. “The law states that you shall, within 30 days after review, issue or deny a permit.”
He recommended that the board, if so inclined, should grant the permit and then set a hearing for 180 days later to review language of conditions and ensure that all was in compliance with any updated recommendations that are expected from the EPA.
Anthony made a motion to grant the permit and specify such a hearing in 180 days.
Guinchigliani stated that she could not support this motion.
“I just don’t think they made a case for a 30-year extension,” Giunchigliani said. “I don’t believe that the health and environmental issues have been answered. I think the general public, including the tribe, have been subjected to environmental issues and I think part of our job as the Board of Health is to make sure that we protect all people regardless of how small they may be. I just cannot support the full 30 years.”
The motion was passed with an 8-4 vote. Opposed were Guinchigliani, Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, Anita Wood of North Las Vegas and Fairchild of Mesquite. Lois Tarkanian of Las Vegas was absent.