Much to the dismay of a neighboring Indian tribe and a national environmental group, NV Energy moved a step closer Thursday toward expanding its controversial landfill for toxic coal-ash waste at its power plant near Moapa.
Southern Nevada Health District's board directed its staff to proceed with finalizing conditions for a permit it approved in October to expand the Reid Gardner Generating Station's landfill, paving the way for 35 more years of operating the coal-fired plant.
"It was disappointing to see they weren't going to change their decision," Moapa Band of Paiutes Chairman William Anderson said after the board discussed the issue for several hours.
In his allotted five minutes of comment, Anderson told the board that his 300-member tribe, of which half to two-thirds live on a reservation near the plant, suffer respiratory problems when the wind blows blinding white clouds of coal ash dust. In addition, contamination from the plant's existing landfill seeps into groundwater that feeds springs and the Muddy River. The river flows into Lake Mead, Southern Nevada's primary drinking water supply.
He said adding more contamination "would be a very big concern" because it would ruin water supplies and his people's way of life.
"To take this away from our culture would be a disgrace to our people," Anderson said.
A lawyer representing the tribe and the Sierra Club tried to persuade the board to rescind its Oct. 28 approval of NV Energy's permit application and order the company to close its existing landfill to prevent a number of toxic metals and coal-ash compounds from polluting state waters.
But in order to do so, the proposed action would have to be an agenda item for a future hearing, a remedy suggested by attorney Daniel Galpern. He said he would ask board members to consider it because finalizing the landfill expansion permit would make the matter ripe for legal action in state court, or at the least an appeal to the Nevada Environmental Commission.
Galpern argued that the board acted without knowing that a computer model by an NV Energy consultant showed significant amounts of contamination -- millions of gallons -- would continue to escape from the landfill with more coming from its expansion on a mesa even if it's built with a protective liner on part of it.
The company was not required to include that information in its permit application and NV Energy's environmental manager, Tony Garcia, accused the Sierra Club of misinterpreting the information.
Garcia said the club's assertion that the application is incomplete is "utterly false and misleading"
He noted that much of the contamination in question stems from historic plant operations in the 1960s that predated the Environmental Protection Agency, which was created during the Nixon administration in 1970.
A civil engineer for the company's consultant, Nathan Betts of CH2M Hill, said the computer model's high leachate amount was based on 255 inches of rainfall on the landfill every year for five years which "blew it out of proportion."
But after the meeting, experts aligned with the Sierra Club noted that the 255-inch rainfall data was realistic because that's how much water enters the landfill each year from the company's dust-suppression activities.
Some board members said they had second thoughts about allowing the expansion because even though the permit application is complete and meets the staff's guidelines, it might not be prudent to allow more contamination loading from the landfill, 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
"It seems to me not to be a wise choice on our part. Why would we allow any more contamination when it's going to have to be removed?" asked board member Karl Gustaveson.
Board member Lois Tarkanian agreed. "We are adding more of a problem and that bothers me."
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.