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Coal-burning Power Plants of the Colorado River Basin

October 23, 2008
by john weisheit

Navajo Generating Station near Lake Powell
Navajo Generating Station near Lake Powell


Most of the coal-fired generation stations in the Colorado River basin are on the province of the Colorado Plateau (map), which is a high elevation desert of thick sedimentary rock layers that host abundant hydrocarbon deposits. 

The water for steam and cooling is supplied, in most cases, by the Colorado River and its many tributaries; groundwater is the other source. The Colorado Plateau is located in eastern Utah, western Colorado, northwest New Mexico, and northern Arizona.

A bit beyond the Colorado Plateau are the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Rocky Mountain province, which includes southwest Wyoming, northeast Utah, and central Colorado. The major tributaries of the Colorado River are the Green and San Juan rivers, which all join as one in southeastern Utah (map). The Colorado River ends in Mexico at the Gulf of California.

On the eastern side of the Great Divide, Wyoming leads the nation in coal mining (37%). In fact, 50 trains (39 in 2001) now leave the Powder River Basin every day and 36 of these trains can push/pull railroad cars that total two miles in length. The mines of Wyoming (Mid-America Energy), the railroads (BNSF), and many of the coal plants (Rocky Mountain Power and PacifiCorp) that burn this coal are corporate investments of Hathaway Berkshire. The CEO of this company is Warren Buffett.

The Colorado River basin is predominately arid (85%) and evaporation rates are usually six or seven times greater than the total annual rainfall. The water used to produce steam is completely consumed through evaporative cooling, so fortunately there are no return flows to alter the temperature of the river. However, this water consumption does reduce instream flows, which are designated by the federal government as critical habitat for threatened and endangered fish species.

The power is exported by long transmission lines to metropolitan cities surrounding the Colorado Plateau, such as Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The distances are staggering, as are the cumulative losses of power along the way. Transmission towers and long lines of cable stretch across a superlative landscape that is essentially pristine. So the rural populations of the Colorado Plateau receive the brunt of chemical and sight pollution as the consequence of this industry. Contrarily, power plants near urban areas, in consideration of the people who live there, burn cleaner fossil fuels such as natural gas. This is a double standard and discriminatory toward rural communities.

Power consumption in the southwestern region of the United States is off the charts compared to the rest of the nation. For example, the power is largely used to pump scarce water supplies uphill to arid and semi-arid metropolises such as Phoenix and Los Angeles. Agriculture here is almost entirely dependent on energy to lift water either from the river or from deep aquifers. Not to mention that all these desert cities have extreme summer and winter outdoor temperatures, and utilize consumptive air conditioning units to control the climate of their interior spaces, which in many cases are unreasonably spacious. In fact, many people maintain two homes (or more) and chase preferable climate by season or elevation.


Coal is king on the Colorado Plateau for reasons of cost-effective extraction, but the plateau also contains more oil shale and tar sands (read report) than Saudi Arabia has liquid petroleum. In fact, this domestic deposit of oil shale and tar sands is the largest in the world and it remains--so far--untapped and for reasons of water scarcity (report).

I must digress from coal briefly to inform readers that the oil companies are poised to exploit these huge deposits of hard rock oil, which would likely impact the drinking water quality of the Colorado River basin and effectively increase global warming impacts worldwide.

Oil shale is an organic rich mud stone that contains kerogen which, when heated, releases crude oil and natural gas. Oil companies require tremendous amounts of energy and natural resources to convert that kerogen into useable products. If oil shale, or tar sands, are extracted by conventional mining methods, the amount of waste rock is considerable, as is the case with mountain top (or high plateau) removal for accessing coal deposits.

The preferred extraction method for oil shale is to heat the rock in its original position (in-situ). This requires drill holes to stop the migration of oil with a curtain of frozen water, drills holes to heat the oil shale, and drills holes to extract the oil and gas. The road and platform construction in arid lands for such an extraction method would devastate this watershed that supports 30 million people (Mexico included) and endangered species.

Surplus water in the Colorado River basin simply does not exist anymore. In fact, the Colorado River Basin is already past peak water according to many climate scientists. The Scripps Institute, for example, predicts that hydropower production at Hoover and Glen Canyon dams has a 50% chance of ceasing in the 2020s (100% in the 2030s), because the reservoirs will empty due to over-consumption and, as a consequence of climate change, diminished streamflow. This is a considerable impact when one considers that the Colorado River, which is only the 25th largest river in the United States, has the two largest man-made reservoirs in the nation--Lakes Mead and Powell.

Contrary to popular perceptions, the production of hydropower from dams on the Colorado River dams is actually quite insignificant. For example, the coal-burning Navajo Generating Station near Lake Powell will produce much more electricity annually than all the hydropower facilities on the Colorado River combined. Hydropower operations cannot run at maximum capacity on an annual basis. If they were operated in this manner, they would effectively drain the reservoirs in no time and hydropower production would cease altogether.


Much of the coal mining and power plant operations occur on, or next to, tribal lands, which include the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute, Paiute and Apache. The mines are owned by national and international corporations who are far-removed from the harm and displacement they bring to this landscape and its people. Though these coal-related facilities provide jobs to indigenous people, the situation has otherwise demoralized the traditional culture of its native people.

There are many indigenous environmental groups on the Colorado Plateau that are opposed to coal mining and coal burning such as Diné Care, Black Mesa Coalition and Black Mesa Trust. The debates about resource extraction on tribal lands, however, is similar to the debates of the dominant society. For example, in 2005 the Navajo Nation banned all uranium mining and milling on their lands forever, but in 2009 the Navajo and Hopi tribal governments banned mainstream environmentalist groups from engaging in tribal affairs over coal extraction and coal-fired power plants, and much to the chagrin of the indigenous environmental groups (and here).


The Colorado Plateau has one of the highest concentrations of preserved natural and cultural features in the world. The high pollution, the altered water, and the poor visibility all affect the enjoyment of our public lands, national parks and wilderness areas, which are all federally protected ecosystems for the entire world to enjoy. For example, there are times when haze prevents one from viewing the other side of the Grand Canyon.

Click here to read air quality report by National Parks Conservation Association.

Health advisories throughout the Colorado River basin suggest that pregnant women not consume fish taken from the Colorado River and its tributaries for reasons of mercury contamination. A US Geological Survey study released in September of this year reported that 40% of smallmouth bass and 1/3 of largemouth bass (not native) sampled in the Colorado River had male organs with partially developed female organs inside (intersexed).


Map of Colorado River Basin

Jim Bridger Power Plant is located in Wyoming near Rock Springs and operated by PacificCorp Energy and Idaho Power Company. The 4 unit plant produces 2,119,000 kilowats per hour. The sub-bitumous coal is delivered from the Bridger Mine and the Black Butte Mine. The water is delivered by a 50-mile pipeline from the Green River. The total annual consumption of coal is 8 million tons. The first unit was completed in 1974 and the fourth unit was completed in 1979. See: SourceWatch website

Other Wyoming Power plants:

Navajo Generating Station (2,250 Megawatts (MW)) was built between 1969 and 1976. Three units are located near Page, Arizona next to Lake Powell, which is the second largest man-made reservoir in the United States when full (now half-full). The facility is located on the Navajo Reservation and the owners are Salt River Project, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Arizona Public Service, Nevada Power Company, and Tucson Electric Power Company. [Note: This plant is being dismantled]

Some of the allocated power from this facility is used to pump Colorado River water from Lake Havasu (336 miles south) for the Central Arizona Project (Metro Phoenix and Tucson). The coal is stripped mined by Peabody Coal Company from Black Mesa on the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations and delivered by a conveyor belt system and electric train that crosses the Rainbow Plateau. The total annual consumption of coal is 8 million ton

Existing pollution control equipment at NGS includes electrostatic precipitators for particulate matter removal and specific burners designed for NOx control. The plant also includes an SO2 emission limiter. Compliance with the SO2 emission limit was phased-in by unit in 1997, 1998, and 1999. Legal action was required to improve air quality at NGS.

2009 - NGS white paper. Central Arizona Project.

Four Corners Power Plant (2,040 MW) was constructed from 1962 to 1970. There are five units near Farmington, New Mexico, and next to the San Juan River. This coal-fired power plant is located on the Navajo Indian Reservation. The facility is owned jointly by Arizona Public Service Company, the Southern California Edison Company, the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, the Public Service Company of New Mexico, the El Paso Electric Company, and the Tucson Electric Power Company.

Every year the plant emits over 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide emissions. It also emits 590 pounds of mercury. The plant's annual emission of nitrogen oxides, 40,742 tons, is the highest of all coal-fired power plants in the USA.

Existing pollution control equipment at FCPP includes baghouses and scrubbers for SO2control and specific burners designed for NOx control. Legal action was required to improve air quality at Four Corners.

San Juan Generating Station (1,800 MW) is a four unit facility which began construction in 1973 and is located near Farmington, New Mexico along the San Juan River. The major owner is Public Service Company of New Mexico. Environmental controls include a limestone forced-oxidation system for removing sulfur dioxide and electrostatic precipitators for removing fly ash. Legal action was required to improve air quality at SJGS.

Mohave Generating Station (1,580 MW) has two units with construction beginning is in 1967. The power plant is not operational at the moment due to a decision by the owners to not install upgrades to meet environmental compliance laws, and as a result of litigation from environmental groups. The operator of the plant is Southern California Edison and the facility is located next to the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nevada. The other owners are Salt River Project, Nevada Power and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. [Note: This plant was dismantled]

The coal is delivered by a water slurry pipeline from Black Mesa, Arizona. The water to transport the coal as a slurry comes from groundwater resources that Navajo and Hopi people depend upon for their drinking water. The depletion of this groundwater was highly controversial and very unpopular with the public. Click here to visit the web page of Black Mesa Trust.

Hunter Power Plant (1,472 MW) is a three unit station located south of Castle Dale, Utah and water for the plant comes from the drainage of the San Rafael River, a tributary of the greater Colorado River basin. The plant is owned by PacificCorp and first started operating in June, 1978; the plant uses 14,000 tons of coal per day. Nearby is the Huntington Power Plant, which produces 895 MW and the cooling water, from the Huntington River, is stored in a reservoir called Electric Lake.

Craig Station (1,274 MW) has three units constructed from 1974 to 1984 and is Colorado's largest coal-fired generating station. The facility is located next to the Yampa River, a tributary of the greater Colorado River basin, near the town of Craig. The facility cost $1.2 billion and is owned and operated by Tri-State Generation and Transmission and four other regional utilities. In 2002, the association embarked on a $121 million, multi-year retrofit to Units 1 and 2 to address opacity concerns and the mitigation of particulate matter. The upgrades were prompted by a settlement agreement with environmental groups.

Springerville Generating Station (1,178 MW) with three units built between 2003 and 2006 is located in east-central Arizona. The owners are Tucson Electric Power and Tri-State Generation and Transmission. The coal for this plant comes from Wyoming at 10 train loads per month (128, 120-ton railcars) and the water for operations comes from local wells. Environmental controls include a flue gas cleanup system, such as low NOx burners and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) for NOx control, dry flue gas desulfurization (DFGD) system for SO2 control and the pulse jet baghouse for particulate control

Cholla Power Plant (995 MW), a four unit facility in northeastern Arizona near Holbrook. The owners are Arizona Public Service (APS) and PacifiCorp (PAC). These utilities participate in a seasonal power exchange in which PAC customers in the Pacific Northwest receive electricity from the APS system in the winter when their electricity demands are high and APS receives PAC power in the summer, during APS' peak demand. Cholla is fueled by coal from the McKinley Mine in New Mexico.

Huntington Power Plant (944 MW) has two units located near the mouth of Huntington Canyon of the San Rafael River drainage. The first generator came online in 1974 and the plant is owned by PacifiCorp.

Coronado Generating Station (773 MW) has two units located along the Little Colorado River near the town of St. Johns, Arizona. The owner is the Salt River Project of Arizona and construction began in 1975 with expenditures totaling $920 million. The coal is delivered by rail from New Mexico and Wyoming. Environmental control equipment includes electrostatic precipitators to control fly ash, scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide (SO2), and the water reservoir is lined to help recover and contain process waste.

Reid Gardner Power Plant (605 MW), along Interstate 15 as you approach Las Vegas, is a four unit station that first became operational in 1965 and owned by Nevada Power. The facility is located next to the Moapa Indian Reservation in the Muddy River drainage of the greater Colorado River basin. This coal plant has the highest rate of CO2 emissions per MW generated in the entire nation. The units have SO2 scrubbers and Unit 4 contains a baghouse for fly ash capture to reduce the particulate emissions. Fact sheet. [Note: This plant is decommissioned]

Bonanza Plant (460 MW) is located on Ute tribal lands near Ouray, Utah and was completed in 1985. The plant is owned and operated by Deseret Power. The coal is delivered by electric train and the facility is in drainage of the White River.

Hayden Generating Station (446 MW) is a two unit facility is located four miles east of Hayden (northern Colorado) along the Yampa River. The facility is owned by Colorado Public Service Company (Xcel), Arizona's Salt River Project, and PacfiCorp. Construction began on the first unit in 1962 and the second unit was completed in 1976.

Carbon Power Plant (190 MW) became operational in 1954. This two unit facility is owned by PacifiCorp and located next to the Price River near Helper, Utah. [Note: This plant was dismantled]

Nucla Station (100 MW) has one unit next to the San Miquel River near Nucla, Colorado and built from 1957 to 1959. The facility was the world's first utility-scale power plant to utilize (1985 - 1987) atmospheric circulating fluidized-bed combustion. Total project cost was $112 million and the owner is Tri-State Generation and Transmission. [Note: This plant is being dismantled]

Cameo Power Plant (77MW) has operated along the Colorado River in Mesa County, Colorado since 1957. The owner, Xcel, would like to close the facility in the near future. [Note: This plant was dismantled]


White Pine Power Plant (1,590 MW) - White Pine Energy Associates (LS Power and Dynergy) would like to build a conventional pulverized coal plant in eastern Nevada. In April 2007, a draft environmental impact statement reported that the plant would emit, among other pollutants, 330 pounds of mercury, 4,812 tons of nitrogen oxides and 6,071 tons of sulfur dioxide per year. In addition the plant and the nearby Ely Energy Center would consume over 2.6 billion gallons of water each year in an area already struggling to meet water demands. Eastern Nevada is in the Colorado River watershed.

The National Park Service has raised serious concerns about the impact it would have at nearby Great Basin National Park. Nevada has the second strongest renewable energy standards in the country, but allowing the construction of additional coal plants would lead Nevada away from reaching its renewable resource potential.

Ely Energy Center (1,500 MW) - A conventional pulverized coal near Ely, Nevada is proposed by Sierra Pacific Resources. Nevada is already a major producer of mercury emissions due to hard rock mining operations, and the Center would add an additional 87 pounds of mercury to the air each year. Its other annual emissions would include 10.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, 3,044 tons of nitrogen oxides, 3,044 tons of sulfuric oxides, particulates and other dangerous pollutants. The Nevada Clean Energy Coalition (NCEC) is fighting the plant through mobilizing grassroots support and educating the public and the media.

Update: as of 2/9/09, this proposed project has been postponed. 

Desert Rock (1,500 MW) - Desert Rock Energy Company, a Sithe Global Power subsidiary, has proposed to build a 1,500 MW supercritical coal plant along the San Juan River near Farmington New, Mexico. Diné Power Authority, a Navajo Nation enterprise established to develop natural resources on Navajo lands, has entered into a project agreement with Desert Rock Energy. Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE) and the San Juan Citizens Alliance are collaborating to stop the development of the Desert Rock plant. The power generated by the plant would not go to the Navajo people, but rather into Las Vegas and Arizona. The two organizations are working to educate the community and raise grassroots support both on and off the Navajo Reservation to stop the plant.

Toquop Power Plant (750 MW) - To be built near Toquop Indian Reservation (northwest of Mesquite, Nevada, which is next to the Virgin River), by Sithe Global as a supercritical pulverized coal facility that will cost $1.2 billion. The Toquop plant was originally proposed as a 1,100 MW natural gas plant in 2003, but due to rising prices of natural gas, was re-proposed as a coal plant. Sithe Global states that they hope to begin construction and have it online by 2011. The company claims that they will use the latest technology to control air pollutants from the plant, but also say that carbon dioxide is not an air pollutant.

Hunter Power Plant (400 MW) - PacifiCorp intends to build a fourth unit at their existing plant near Castledale, Utah with old coal technologies; the total cost of the plant is estimated to be $800 million. Originally, unit 4 was scheduled to come online in 2011, but PacifiCorp has indicated that this will no longer be possible. The emissions from the plant would affect visibility and environmental quality at Utah's five national parks, in addition to the residents in the surrounding areas. Environmental groups are actively opposing the construction of the plant.

Bowie Power Plant (600 MW) - This power plant near Tucson, Arizona was originally proposed by the Southwestern Power Group as a 1,000 MW natural gas facility, but due to high natural gas prices, it was later re-proposed as an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle facility, scheduled to open in 2012. While SWPG did receive a permit for the original natural gas plant, there are different regulations for coal and a new air permit will be required. Locally, concerns have been raised about water usage, air pollution and height of the 18 stacks, seven of them over 100 feet high.

Mustang Power Plant (300 MW) - In September 2006, Peabody Energy announced its plans to withdraw the Mustang application for a conventional pulverized coal-fired plant near Farmington, New Mexico. The New Mexico Environment Department demanded that Peabody look into Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology as the best available coal technology, and Peabody refused to provide more information about why it believed that IGCC was neither technically nor economically possible. Peabody has stated that it may construct a synthesis gas (syngas) plant instead, but has not provided more information.

Sigurd Power Plant (270 MW) - Proposed by Nevco, this power plant near Sigurd, Utah, which is actually in the Great Basin province, but directly adjacent to the Colorado Plateau and its national parks. Local residents have formed a group, Sevier Citizens for Clean Air and Water, to oppose the construction.

Bonanza (80 MW) - Deseret Generation and Transmission plans to add a third unit to its exisitng facility in northeast Utah. This circulating fluidized bed facility, if constructed, would release 3.37 million tons of carbon dioxide, 1,038 tons of sulfur dioxide, 5,692 tons of nitrous oxides and 36 pounds of mercury per year.



America's Biggest Polluters: Carbon Dioxide Emmissions from Power Plants in 2007. Arizona Environment.

American Indian Cultural Support

Black Mesa Indigenous Support

Black Mesa Water Coalition

Dine' CARE

Report: Dirty Kilowatts

Source Watch

Utah and coal

Wyoming and coal

Baseline Data

Heavy metal loading in Lake Powell

Air quality in the Lake Powell region

Mercury in the Lake Powell ecosystem

Demographic Change Among the Hopi and Navajo Indians

The Effects of Power Production and Strip Mining on Local Navajo Populations

The Impact of Power Developments in the Navajo Nation

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