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Majority of PNM shareholders nix call for coal ash report

May 21, 2019
FILE - This Nov. 9, 2009, file photo shows the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington, N.M. Proponents of New Mexico's energy industry say emails exchanged among environmentalists and a key member of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's cabinet represent a conflict of interest as the state was creating landmark legislation that set ambitious new renewable energy goals.(AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A group of shareholders vowed Tuesday to continue efforts aimed at getting the state’s largest electric provider to release more details about the tons of waste generated by its coal-fired power plant in northwestern New Mexico.

A resolution that would have required Public Service Co. of New Mexico to prepare a report on coal ash at the San Juan Generating Station failed to win the support of a majority of shareholders during their annual meeting.

However, the initiative did garner enough support to allow PNM Shareholders for a Responsible Future to refile it next year.

“If PNM wants to be responsible and transparent, this is precisely the kind of thing we need to be doing for the shareholders and also for the general public,” said Andrew Davis, a spokesman for the group. “Our suspicion is that they do not want to publish anything more because they don’t want to affect their share price.”

The investor-owned utility argued that a separate report on coal ash is unnecessary since it discusses the waste in filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

While the utility contends it’s not responsible for the waste once it’s transported from the San Juan plant, some shareholders and environmentalists have concerns about future liabilities and decommissioning costs once San Juan closes in 2022.

San Juan’s closure is part of the utility’s effort to divest itself from coal generation. The transition started a few years ago as regulatory pressures mounted, and it has gained momentum as renewable energy costs have become more competitive.

There’s added political pressure in New Mexico, where Democrats rallied behind legislation earlier this year to establish mandates for utilities and rural electric cooperatives to get at least half of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. That would jump to 80% by 2040.

A 100% carbon-free mandate would kick in later.

Aside from the quotas, funds will be established to help ease the economic pains of closing the coal-fired plant near Farmington.

Despite their support for renewable energy, some environmentalists are sounding the alarm that provisions within the new Energy Transition Act could leave utility customers and taxpayers on the hook for more of the costs associated electricity generation.

Critics have described the law as a boon for PNM. Language in the law allows the utility and other owners of San Juan to recover investments in the plant by selling bonds that will be paid off by customers.

Some environmentalists also are concerned that independently elected state regulators won’t have as much say in deciding which costs are passed on to ratepayers and which are absorbed by the utility.

According to the shareholders group, San Juan produced more than 1 million tons (0.91 million metric tons) of coal ash in 2017. The material — made up of heavy metals and carcinogens, including lead, mercury, arsenic and radium — is used to backfill the mine that feeds the plant.

The group warned of potential future liabilities, citing contamination in other states.

U.S. coal plants generate about 100 million tons (90.72 million metric tons) of ash annually. An Associated Press analysis of data released by utilities last year showed widespread evidence of groundwater contamination around coal plants nationwide.

In its financial filings , PNM says the potential for “adverse effects” is extremely low given New Mexico’s arid climate and the area’s geology.

The utility says the coal ash is covered with at least 10 feet (3 meters) of dirt, which is then capped with topsoil and seed. Monitoring equipment is used to detect any movement of water at the site.

Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians said the extent of the coal ash problem is unclear. He suggested PNM shoulder the costs, reiterating concerns that the Energy Transition Act could be used as a vehicle to shift the burden to customers.

“All this just underscores that even under the ETA, ratepayers and regulators need to be vigilant in ensuring PNM isn’t allowed to unilaterally pass the buck when it comes to confronting its cleanup liabilities,” he said.

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