An aerial view of the San Juan coal mine. Photo by Doc Searls.
Groundwater near the
San Juan coal mine in northwestern New Mexico is polluted. That’s something
that both the Sierra Club and New
Mexico Mining and Minerals Division Director Bill Brancard agree on. What’s
in dispute is how the water came to be contaminated.
The Sierra Club alleges that the
San Juan Coal Company has improperly dumped more than 40 million tons of
coal ash and sludge into unlined pits, resulting in the contamination of
waterways and wells near the mine.
The group says that the waste, and the contaminated water, pose a danger to
livestock, wildlife and families in the area, and in early December, the Sierra
Club announced that it intends to sue the owners of the San Juan Coal Company.
The company denies responsibility for the contamination.
“San Juan Coal Company is confident that allegations of water contamination as a
result of coal combustion by-product (CCB ) placement at the San Juan Mine are
incorrect and are not supported by water monitoring data,” Charles Roybal,
senior counsel for the coal company’s parent company, BHP Billiton, told The
Independent in an email.
When coal is burned in power plants, solid waste by-products are generated in
the form of ash and sludge. Such waste contains toxic metals like mercury,
arsenic, boron, lead and selenium, but its disposal is unregulated by the
The potential danger of coal ash disposal
came to national attention in December 2008, when a
billion gallons of coal ash sludge flooded rural Tennessee after the dam of
a retention pond broke at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant. Just after the
spill, attention focused on storage of wet coal sludge near rivers, and
recommendations that risk be minimized by “putting dry ash into landfills with
caps, linings and collection systems for contaminated water,” as the
New York Times noted.
The disposal of combustion waste is currently unregulated by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, but that may soon change. The
EPA has been working to develop a regulatory framework for coal ash disposal
since the Tennessee spill, and is
expected to issue new disposal rules in early 2010.
At issue: Unlined pits
San Juan Coal Company disposes of the waste from the San Juan Generating Plant
in unlined pits at the San Juan coal mine, which is allowed under current state
regulations. There are three wells in place to monitor the groundwater in the
According to the Sierra Club’s notice of intent to sue, coal waste has been used
to fill pits upgrade of “well L” and adjacent to “well D.” Both wells were
placed by the coal company to monitor the water going into the Shumway and
Westwater arroyos, which exit the mine boundaries and travel downstream.
A representative of BHP Billiton said the monitoring program has been in place
for over 30 years, and that data from the wells is given to the state’s Mining
and Mineral Division and subsequently made available to the public on a
According to the data supplied in the Sierra Club’s notice of intent to sue,
there are excessive levels of
selenium in water
from Well D, and selenium,
from Well L. The environmental group says it will present additional data in its
suit concerning other pollutants, like
“The only possible cause of the increasing pollutant concentrations in ground
water drawn from Well L is leaching of pollutants from CCW [coal combustion
waste], followed by transport off the permit area either by ground water
movement, diffusion, or both,” the group states on page 15 of the notice.
Brancard agrees with the group’s analysis of the water data itself, but says the
cause of the pollution isn’t necessarily the disposal of the coal ash in the
unlined pits at the San Juan mine.
“The data they have is our data,” he said, “and there are some levels [of
pollutants] that go beyond state standards. But it’s unclear what the source of
the pollution is.”
The culprit could be a number of things, Brancard told the Independent.
The wells are located at the intersection of both the San Juan power plant and
the mine, Brancard explained. His agency doesn’t have evidence that the coal
waste deposited at the mine is getting wet, which would be an indicator that
pollutants are leaching into the water, he said.
“We have instruments in the actual ash to see if it’s getting wet, which would
cause leaching of metals and contaminants,” he explained. “What we’ve seen is
that over time the ash has basically remained dry. We don’t have evidence that
metals have leached to groundwater.”
However, Brancard said that his agency does take seriously the water
contamination that the data shows. In order to get a better understanding of
what is happening, the company was ordered in November to put in 10 additional
monitoring wells, he continued.
But Jeff Stant, the director of the
Environmental Integrity Project
and a consultant with the Sierra Club, said that both geography in the area and
the preponderance of one metal in particular—boron–makes it clear where the
contamination comes from.
The geography places the monitoring wells lower than the waste pits at the San
Juan mine with coal ash and “scrubber sludge,”
he said. Of three monitoring wells, one is close to the power plant and coal ash
pits, while the other two are six to eight miles from the power plant. The power
plant is in a location that wouldn’t be able to intercept the flow of water in a
way that would lead to the kind of contamination that exists at those two wells,
“[Due to this geography] the idea that the power plant causes the leaching of
the metals into the water is crazy,” he said.
That assessment, in conjunction with high levels of metals like boron, leads
Stant to believe that the contamination is due to coal waste disposal back at
the mine, not the power plant itself.
“Boron is a very good signifier of coal combustion waste leaching,” he said. “If
you look at ash sites throughout the country where there is water contamination,
you’ll see high levels of boron.”
New Mexico groundwater quality standards call for no more than 0.75 milligrams
of boron per liter of water. The data shows boron well over that standard
consistently present in the water going back to 1979, typically ranging from 1.3
to 2 milligrams per liter.
“We feel strongly there is no other way to explain the contamination,” Stant