Tribe, Sierra Club Sue to Clean Up Coal Plant Pollution

The Reid-Gardner Power Plant in Nevada | Photo: Sierra Club

A small community of Paiute Indians who for decades have lived in the shadow of a coal-fired power plant used to pump water through California aqueducts is suing to force the plant's owners to clean up the toxic mess left behind, and they've got some powerful allies.

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The Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose reservation is about 60 miles northwest of Las Vegas along Interstate 15, have lived near the Reid Gardner Generating Station since 1965. Built in stages over the decades to eventually reach 557 megawatts in generating capacity, the coal-fired plant has long been blamed for serious health problems among tribe members.

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) owns 31 percent of Reid-Gardner. DWR plans to divest itself of its stake in the plant in order to comply with California greenhouse gas emission laws. Still, the water agency's partnership with NV Energy over the years to generate coal-fired electricity to run aqueduct pumps has a legacy. Since 1983, every time a Southern California resident turns on the tap and drinks some water that's been pumped over the Grapevine, that means a little bit more coal plant pollution for the Moapa Paiutes to live with.

As we've reported before, a coal ash landfill on the boundaries of tribal land and just a few hundred yards from tribe members' homes is of particular concern to tribal members. Fly ash from coal-fired power plants is a known source of arsenic, mercury, lead, and other toxic metal pollutants.

Another source of serious environmental concern is the plant's wastewater stream, which for years has been kept in percolation ponds that the tribe charges has poisoned local groundwater. Testing of nearby drinking water wells between 2008 and 2012 resulted in more than 7,000 samples that exceeded state maximum standards for toxic contaminants.

The tribe has been working for years to get the plant shut down, a battle they won in June when the Nevada State Legislature voted to allow plant owner NV Energy to phase out and shut down Reid Gardner by 2017.

With the looming shutdown of the plant comes a legal deadline to get that toxic coal ash cleaned up properly, and so far neither the state of Nevada nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seem eager to force NV Energy to live up to its obligations under federal solid waste and water quality laws to clean up the mess it's leaving behind.

Or at least that's what the Moapa Band and the Sierra Club say in the lawsuit they filed today in U.S. District Court in Nevada. The Moapa Band and the Sierra Club are suing NV Energy and the DWR in an attempt to force the plant's owners to stop open dumping of power plant waste. The groups also want NV Energy and DWR to clean up toxic contaminants in the Moapa's soil and groundwater.

"Paiute families have waited long enough for remediation," said Nevada Sierra Club activist Jane Feldman in a press release today. "Now with the Reid Gardner coal plant closing, it is critical that we ensure that the process of cleaning up the site begins immediately."

"We are all looking forward to the retirement of the Reid Gardner coal-fired plant that has for decades polluted our Reservation," added Vickie Simmons, a leader of the Moapa Band of Paiutes' Health and Environmental Committees. "And for the sake of our families' health, we must ensure that the toxic waste from the power plant is fully cleaned up. The safety of our community and the future of our children depend on it."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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