A Southern Nevada Indian tribe is accusing NV Energy of submitting phony air pollution data to state regulators for a coal-burning power plant tribal members insist is making them sick.
The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians bases its claim on documents showing the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection had to discard about five years of dust pollution data for one monitoring station at the Reid Gardner Generating Station after a 2011 investigation determined the information was logged incorrectly by a contractor hired by the utility to monitor the air around the plant.
State environmental regulators blamed the phony data on “human error” by the contractor and let NV Energy off with a warning.
The Division of Environmental Protection issued a statement Wednesday afternoon downplaying the significance of the data, which the agency said has nothing to do with separate, real-time emissions monitoring “required to demonstrate compliance with environmental standards.”
State regulators have no evidence that NV Energy has failed to meet any air quality standards or requirements at Reid Gardner, according to the statement from the division.
“The facility is in compliance with all state and federal air quality standards and permit limitations and conditions,” the division said.
MISTAKE OR ‘MISCONDUCT’?
The Moapa Band of Paiutes thinks the phony data speaks for itself. They plan to use the documents, collected last year through a public records request, to challenge NV Energy’s operation of the aging power plant.
Lawyers for the tribe issued a notice Wednesday giving the utility 60 days to “resolve the violations” of its federal air quality permit or face a lawsuit in federal court.
What happened wasn’t an “error,” the tribe’s lawyers and its leader say; it was “deliberate misconduct.”
“So many days when coal dust and ash has whipped into homes in our community it turns out NV Energy wasn’t even measuring the pollution, so we have no gauge on the extent of the threat families here have been exposed to,” said tribal Chairman William Anderson in a statement. “The level of deceit by NV Energy is truly shameful.”
Company CEO Michael Yackira rebutted such claims.
“The Reid Gardner Station has continuous emissions monitoring in place for all regulated air pollutants, and has been and remains in substantial compliance with all regulatory requirements,” he said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “Any reports that NV Energy falsified any documents or reports are patently false.”
Yackira acknowledged “irregularities in a report filed by a third-party vendor regarding certain ambient air quality data at the Reid Gardner facility,” but he said the information in question was collected for “air shed modeling” and not relied upon for compliance purposes.
Problems with the data were discovered during a routine review by state regulators, who determined that some particulate air pollution sampling results “had — at a minimum — not been reliably reported.”
In fact, the numbers compiled by contractor Environmental Monitoring Co. on behalf of NV Energy appeared to be copied exactly from one spreadsheet to the next.
In his statement Wednesday, Yackira noted that as soon as the reporting irregularities were confirmed, “NV Energy immediately terminated its relationship with that vendor.”
A COAL-FIRED FIGHT
The Moapa Band of Paiutes also accused the utility on Wednesday of violating its federal permit for Reid Gardner by routinely exceeding the so-called “heat-input” limits for its boilers, which can increase pollution emissions. The tribe contends that documents it obtained through the same record request show the plant ran one of its units above the heat-input limit for more than 2,100 hours, or roughly a quarter of a year, in 2010 alone.
State regulators said they have no evidence to support that allegation.
The Division of Environmental Protection said it would investigate but suggested in its statement Wednesday that the allegations might have “arisen through the tribe’s apparent misinterpretation of data.”
Tribal members living in the shadow of Reid Gardner’s smokestacks have blamed pollution from the plant for illnesses and deaths on their 73,000-acre reservation about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
So far, no health studies have linked medical problems among the tribe’s roughly 300 members to the power plant next door.
Even so, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the Sierra Club have joined the Paiute tribe’s calls for the almost 50-year-old facility to be retired. The Democratic senator from Searchlight has called the plant a “dirty relic.”
NV Energy officials insist Reid Gardner is still an important part of Southern Nevada’s energy portfolio and its operation continues to meet federal clean air and water standards. The company has no immediate plans to shutter the plant.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350.