CREDIT: Bill Corcoran, Sierra Club
MOAPA VALLEY, Nevada — Lots of people have dusty fans. Sometimes they seem to serve no other purpose but to make you feel guilty about your house-cleaning skills. But something is different in the homes in this valley just 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas. If you run your finger along the blades of any ceiling fan in this small town, your finger won’t just be dusty, it will be filthy — caked with black grime.
To understand the black layer that infiltrates even the most fastidiously swept and dusted home, here on the Moapa Paiute Reservation, all you have to do is walk to the beautifully maintained baseball field in the center of town.
From there, you have a direct view across the modest family homes — with well-used cars parked at odd angles, their windshields practically opaque with ashen dust — to the four smokestacks of the Reid-Gardner coal-fired power plant, which first started dumping ash laced with mercury, lead and arsenic in 1965. The plant, recently acquired by MidAmerican Energy when that company bought NV Energy, sits just a few hundred yards away from some of the homes on the reservation. Not many people here have air conditioning, but when demand in Las Vegas spikes, the plant starts belching dark clouds to keep the strip cool.
“I’m scared of it,” said Vickie Simmons, a leader of the Moapa Band of Paiutes Health and Environment Committees. “I don’t like to even look at it.”
Simmons does prefer to keep her blinds down and her curtains drawn, but that’s not because she actually believes that looking at the plant will make her ill. It’s because the plant reminds her of her brother who died at just 31 of an enlarged heart, after working at the plant for over a decade. One of his equally young co-workers was claimed by the same disease.
Simmons knows she could move, but this town is home. She is a Moapa Paiute, and the Moapa River Reservation is her heritage. Moreover, with so many of her tribesmen dying so young, somebody needs to continue the fight to end the chronic poisoning.
In June, Governor Brian Sandoval signed SB 123, putting the Reid-Gardner plant on the path toward complete closure by 2017. While a huge victory for the Paiutes, the closure of the plant marks the beginning of serious work to clean up the uncovered ash ponds and often unlined landfills which will continue to contaminate the air and groundwater long after the plant is shuttered. Between 2008 and 2012, monitoring wells for groundwater quality showed over 7,000 exceedances of state standards.
CREDIT: Bill Corcoran, Sierra Club
Looking back, Simmons, who was born in town and now lives within a mile of the plant, is grateful that her mother couldn’t afford to look after her when she was young. Simmons was sent away to stay with relatives during school, and credits her longtime absence as the reason why she is still healthy while nearly everyone else she knows in the 350 member tribe is struggling with some medical condition — asthma, heart disease, lung disease, cancer.
“I used to work as a vocational counselor when I first moved back to town,” Simmons recalls. “I remember sitting at my desk looking through paperwork and wondering how our little tribe got this big grant for disabled people, which so many other bigger tribes must have applied for. Did we really have more disabled people than tribes ten times our size?”
Despite all of the suffering, and the long and often seemingly hopeless battle that the Moapa Paiutes have waged against the Reid-Gardner plant, theirs is not just a story of an underprivileged community being exploited by a big company.
Even as they prepare to bury another tribe member and their chairman remains in the hospital for a fifth month with a mysterious ailment, the tribe is preparing to break ground on the first large-scale solar project on tribal land in the nation. The 350 megawatt project is expected to come online in 2015, The tribe has signed a contract to sell the electricity — enough to power 100,000 homes — to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
“Who would have thought the Moapa Band of Paiutes would be supplying power to LA?” said Eric Lee, acting chairman from the tribe.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, announced that his city would be off coal power by 2025. Currently, Los Angeles gets forty percent of its power from two old and infamously dirty coal plants — the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona and the Intermountain Power Project in Utah.
Lee indicated that if all went well with the first solar project, the tribe would be interested in leasing more land for renewable energy development. The tribe owns 72,000 acres, only 2,000 of which will be developed under the current contract with K Road Power.
The Moapa Paiutes are far from the only tribe with a long and complicated history with the fossil fuel industry. Across the nation, a disproportionate number of power plants operate near or on tribal lands. According to an AP analysis of EPA data, ten percent of all U.S. power plants are within 20 miles of a reservation affecting 48 different tribes. Historically, dirty energy has been embraced by communities who need the jobs and often lack the voice to stand up to industrial scale pollution.
“What amazes me about the Moapa Paiutes is their persistence,” said Bill Corcoran, Western Regional Campaign Director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Program. “Over the course of this fight, the tribe has buried so many of it’s leaders, but they’ve kept at it. Somehow maintaining their passion and momentum and bringing up new leaders to keep the fight going.”
The battle is far from over, though. Even as the suits to make NV Energy clean up the plant begin, Simmons and her neighbors worry that MidAmerican Power will bring natural gas development into the area.
“We’ve endured enough,” said Simmons. “We’re developing clean energy and we challenge MidAmerican to do the same.”