Lawsuit aims to block expansion of NV Energy landfill

An Indian tribe and a national environmental group have filed a lawsuit to block the expansion of a landfill for coal-ash waste at a NV Energy power plant near Moapa.

The Moapa Band of Paiutes and the Sierra Club contend that blowing coal ash dust and polluted water from the landfill are already contaminating the environment and causing health problems for nearby residents.

"The permitted expansion, unless it is stopped, will vastly compound the damage," said attorney Dan Galpern, who filed the lawsuit in District Court on Monday afternoon.

The lawsuit targets the Southern Nevada Health District and its board of directors, which signed off last month on a final permit clearing NV Energy to expand.

Though the new part of the landfill will be lined and capped, Galpern said NV Energy's expansion plans do nothing to improve the current landfill, which he described as "a conveyor belt of waste going into the environment."

There are tribal members living about a half mile away from the site, close enough to "smell it and taste it," he said.

"When the wind blows from the south, the ash blows into the homes and the hair and the food of my clients," Galpern said.

Meanwhile, rainfall and the water used to control dust at the site washes toxic metals and coal-ash compounds into the nearby Muddy River flow system, he said.

"State law is clear: The Board of Health is not entitled to license a public nuisance."

Spokeswoman Jennifer Sizemore said health district officials had not seen the lawsuit as of Monday night, but the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation anyway.

NV Energy spokesman Mark Severts said utility officials couldn't comment on a lawsuit they had yet to read, but he rejected the underlying allegations of environmental contamination.

Severts said the ash and other material that go to the landfill are deemed "nonhazardous" and "nontoxic" under state and federal law.

He said the planned expansion includes strict protective measures "unique to Nevada" and will move existing waste ponds one mile away from the Muddy River and about two miles farther away from tribal residents.

Galpern countered that the permit would "grandfather in" existing contamination because it requires no liner beneath the existing landfill to prevent polluted water from leaching into the environment. Worse yet, he said, the permit only requires environmental monitoring for contamination above current levels, a move he said essentially excuses NV Energy for past pollution at the site.

Galpern acknowledged that there have been "no good epidemiological studies" on the health effects of the blowing dust, but tribal members blame the landfill and neighboring power plant for headaches, nosebleeds, respiratory problems and other ailments.

That gives the tribe and the Sierra Club another reason to fight the permit: Expanding the landfill would help extend the life of the aging, coal-fired Reid Gardner Generating Station, which first went on line in 1965.

The Moapa Band of Paiutes includes about 300 members, roughly half of whom live on the reservation near the power plant.

With a final permit now in hand, NV Energy plans to finish its design and engineering plans for the expansion and get ready to start construction, Severts said.