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What's in the water?

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Power suit: A legal battle over toxic pollutants in Moapa may mean trouble downstream for Las Vegas.

It’s been eight months since NV Energy settled a lawsuit filed by the Moapa Paiutes and Sierra Club claiming the electric utility had polluted — and failed to properly clean — the air and water around the Moapa reservation with toxic waste from the Reid Gardner Generating Station. But as tainted drinking water sickens Americans from Alabama to Michigan, some locals are wondering whether an ongoing cleanup effort at the site is rigorous enough to prevent a similar problem here.

“Las Vegans should ask for assurance from the Reid Gardner plant operators, Nevada Energy, that strict maintenance of the holding ponds and levees at that site are observed,” wrote Mesquite resident Charles Loomis in a letter to Desert Companion. “At the very least, the ponds should have double liners to prevent leaching into groundwater that will eventually pollute drinking water. The Moapa Band of Paiutes and other residents of Moapa say this is already happening and nothing of substance is being done about it …”

In 2013, a state law required NV Energy to shut down most of its coal-fired power plants. But five years earlier, the utility had already agreed with the state division of environmental protection to identify and clean up contamination at Reid Gardner, located adjacent to the Paiute land northeast of Las Vegas. Toxic substances found at the site include dissolved solids, sulfate, chloride, metals, volatile organic compounds and petroleum hydrocarbons.

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The agreement and subsequent work didn’t stop the tribe and environmental group from suing the utility in 2013 for mishandling solid and hazardous waste at the plant. Among other specifics, the plaintiffs claimed the utility’s discharge of coal-combustion byproducts into the Muddy River, which flows into Lake Mead, violated the federal Clean Water Act.

“The question of the quantity (parts per million of contaminants), what’s making it downstream and what the impact would be — those were the hotly contested questions in the lawsuit,” says attorney Robert Wiygul, who represented the plaintiffs. “The question of whether it makes its way into your tap is another one. We were looking more at the immediate effect.”

NV Energy settled the suit in October without admitting any wrongdoing. The utility agreed to share information about its cleanup with the Moapa Paiutes and pay them $4.3 million for a community wellness center, air-quality monitoring equipment, technical help understanding the information provided and water rights, which the tribe could buy. Representatives of the tribe did not return Desert Companion’s calls and emails seeking a progress update on the concessions.

“The settlement doesn’t change our obligations under the Agreement of Consent” with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, says Starla Lacy, NV Energy’s VP of environmental safety and land resources. “We knew we were going to be retiring Reid Gardner, so this (agreement) allowed us to start getting things cleaned up in a way that makes sense and protects the environment.”

Lacy says that seven of the 11 ponds where wastewater was stored were dried out and excavated. The remaining four are out of service and excavation should begin this fall, she adds; two others that will stay in service until the last unit is shut down are double-lined. However, in reports NV Energy has acknowledged that the aquifer below the water table may still contain pollutants that leaked through unlined wastewater holding ponds built in the facility’s early years.

Asked if any pollutants found at the site could end up in our drinking water, Lacy says, “We’ve been testing the groundwater for a number of years. … We haven’t detected any contaminants of concern in the stretch of the (Muddy) River that runs through the facility that are at or above the drinking water standards.”

Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokeswoman Jo Ann Kittrell adds: “NV Energy is now investigating that and working on a conceptual site model to determine if there is potential for contamination migration.”