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Before regulation hits, a battle over how to build new US coal plants

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But opponents say enough is enough. The Four Corners area already hosts three power plants. A brown haze often hangs over the region on still days. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has issued advisories not to eat fish caught in area lakes and streams because of high mercury content. (In the US, emissions from coal plants account for one-third of all human-released mercury and 34 percent of all CO2 emissions.) Health officials note that the nitrogen oxides, ozone, and particulates that spew from coal-fired plants are known respiratory irritants. And the Desert Rock plant will emit some 10,500 metric tons of CO2 annually, an amount equal to what New Mexico governor and presidential hopeful Bill Richardson has pledged to remove from the state's emissions by 2012.

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"We've become an energy sacrifice zone for the country because of our natural-gas reserves, coal, and uranium," says Mike Eisenfeld, the New Mexico staff organizer of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a social and environmental organization opposed to the project.

Carbon issues aside, Sithe Global Power, co-owner of the proposed Desert Rock plant with the Navajo-owned Diné Power Authority, has responded to at least some of these concerns in a voluntary emissions-reduction plan that it says would make Desert Rock operate 10 times cleaner than existing plants in the area. As for carbon, if and when "carbon capture" technology becomes available, the plant will be easily retrofittable.

"We have done our best to be a good neighbor," says Frank Maisano, spokesman for Sithe Global. In the meantime, Southwestern markets need some 2,300 megawatts' worth of energy and the Navajo Nation is eager to exploit its vast coal reserves, he says. "The Four Corners region can't afford to wait," he says.

But some say this approach ignores the reality of global warming and the eventuality of carbon regulation and lower caps on mercury emissions. Pulverized coal is a "mature" technology, says John Nielsen, energy program director at Western Resource Advocates, an environmental nonprofit in Boulder, and it has most likely reached its full potential.

IGCC, on the other hand, is ahead of the curve. Even now, the capture of pollutants is much more efficient and cost-effective in IGCC, which removes them before reaching the combustion chamber rather than scrubbing them from the exhaust. And although IGCC plants are 15 to 20 percent more expensive to build than PC plants, if regulation comes into play, scrambling to retrofit a PC plant may prove more expensive than having initially built an IGCC plant, says Mr. Nielsen.

Others see something more sinister at work in the nationwide rush to build PC plants: an industry attempt to get cheaper, "dirtier," facilities on the ground before Congress puts carbon regulations in place. "The barn door is open now, and a lot of facilities are trying to get in before it closes," says Denise Fort, a law professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law in Albuquerque.

At least two lawmakers seem to agree. In a Jan. 19 editorial in The Dallas Morning News, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, both of whom chair powerful Senate environmental committees, issued what amounted to a stern warning: Utilities building plants with old technology should not assume they will be "grandfathered in" when carbon regulations arrive.

Inside the trailer, a handful of Navajo elders alternately chat, doze, and talk with a reporter around a propane heater. Most speak some English, but all prefer to express themselves on this contentious issue through an interpreter in their native tongue. For them, the issue is simple. Yes, jobs would be nice, but at what cost?

"It's just going to mess up all our land," says Lucy Willie. "This is our land to live on. Where are we going to move? Where are we going to stay?"