The Moapa Band of
Paiute Indians thought coal ash from a nearby plant was killing
them off, so they fought back
MOAPA, NV Surita Hernandez leaned against the frame of
her front door, looking nowhere in particular. Some of her brood
played on a stack of tossed mattresses. Her husband's contagious
cackle erupted from across the street.
"There's been just so many deaths from people right here on
the reservation," she said matter-of-factly, a light breeze rustling
through her waist-length black hair. "Growing up, I don't remember
going to so many funerals."
Hernandez believes a nearby coal-fired power plant is killing
Nestled among the sprawling desert mesas, the Moapa
River Reservation dates back to 1875. The bond between the 300-member
Moapa Band of Paiute Indians and the land is strong and deep. The
reservation is roughly an hour north of Las Vegas and borders the
coal ash landfills of the Reid Gardner Generating Station. On windy
days, the coal ash from the plant whips across the desert like a
toxic sandstorm. Residents say it forces them to stay indoors.
Coal ash is the waste material left over after coal is burned.
It's often laced with pollutants, but it isn't covered by any federal
rules. In fact, no one paid much attention to coal ash until 1 billion
gallons of it poured into the rivers around the Tennessee Valley
Authority Kingston Fossil Plant in 2008 and blanketed more than
300 acres of land. The tragic spill ignited a debate over whether
to regulate coal ash and how.
Hernandez, the question is urgent. Each of her five children suffers
from respiratory problems, and each needs some form of medication.
The 35-year-old went inside her home and returned with a box
filled with rattling pill bottles and devices.
"We have inhalers, we have nebulizers. My son takes a steroid
at night to help control [his asthma]," she said, running her finger
across the prescription label. "My daughter has headache medicines
because she gets these headaches and they just don't go away."
Some of the medication must be administered every four hours.
"When you have to get up in the middle of the night, and you
have to work early the next morning, it can be hard," she said,
letting out a heavy sigh. "But it's your kid's life."
'Dropping like flies'
Many tribe members believe the coal ash has caused
asthma attacks, cancer, heart disease and even some premature deaths
among the 200 residents living here. They've noticed these illnesses
since the 1980s, and can't point to an exact number of deaths linked
to the plant. But Vicki Simmons, who sits on the tribe's environmental
committee, said it includes her brother.
brother worked down at that plant. He was 31 years old when he passed
away," said Simmons, who heads air quality testing for the reservation.
"I just realized how many sick people there are people I
work with, my neighbors and the people that live next to them. So
it started having a pattern to me."
A small hill overlooks the tribe's cemetery, which sits next
to the power station.
"Whoever could speak, they did. A lot of those people are dead,
or now they're ill," Simmons added as she stood on the hill. "People
are just dropping like flies."
According to a 2010 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility,
a nonprofit dedicated to environmental issues, coal ash commonly
contains some of the world's deadliest toxic metals: arsenic, lead,
mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium.
| "If I were to give you a glass of arsenic-laced water,
I could be charged with attempted murder." Barbara
Gottlieb - Physicians for Social Responsibility
"If I were to give you a glass of arsenic-laced water, I could
be charged with attempted murder," said Barbara Gottlieb, who co-authored
the report. "When arsenic gets into people's well water, when chromium-6
gets into the water that they bathe with, when selenium gets into
a lake where people fish and eat the fish, and all of these toxic
substances get into them and their children, it's not a crime?"
NV Energy, which owns the plant, declined "America Tonight's"
request for an interview, but said in a statement it's always operated
the power station in an environmentally responsible manner. And
there's no way to say for certain that it's the plant that's making
tribal members sick. But Gottlieb said the connection is clear.
"If somebody is smoking cigarettes, we can't say it was that
particular pack of Winston cigarettes that you smoked that caused
your cancer, but we can say you have lung cancer and you smoke cigarettes,"
she said. "There's a connection."
Anderson, the former chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians,
stopped at the edge of a cliff that faces out onto the power station.
"We're dying off," he said. "We're paying with our lives for this
Increasingly disturbed by the number of sick and dying tribe
members, Anderson decided to take on the state's energy giant. He
went to the health board of southern Nevada for help in the spring
of 2010, but said the door was slammed in his face.
"And the response was that, 'Well, you don't have over 1,000
people. You're less than that. So we're not gonna go ahead and pay
any attention to what happens here in the reservation,'" he said.
With word of the tribe's plight, The Sierra Club, a national
grassroots environmental organization, stepped in to assist the
tribe with lawyers and lobbying. The Paiutes campaigned to close
the plant and, in 2012, sued NV Energy to force it to clean up the
|"We're gonna go ahead and show a different way to create
energy, other than polluting and destroying Mother Earth."
William Anderson - Former chairman, Moapa Band of Paiute Indians
According to the lawsuit, 20 truckloads of coal ash are dumped
every day into a nearby landfill, and nearly 500,000 gallons of
wastewater are sent to nearby evaporation ponds. The suit goes on
to state that the waste from the plant has contaminated the groundwater,
resulting in arsenic levels 140 times higher than federal drinking
In this David and Goliath battle the tribe is winning. Its campaign
got the attention of political leaders, and in June, Nevada Gov.
Brian Sandoval signed a bill effectively shutting down the coal-fired
power plant by 2017.
"And now you see the outcome of it," Anderson said. "The outcome
is that we're gonna shut this plant down and we're gonna go ahead
and show a different way to create energy, other than polluting
and destroying Mother Earth."
Here Comes The Sun
The tribe didn't stop at shutting down the coal
plant. It turned to solar, which now powers its casino and Travel
Plaza rest stop along the interstate, saving nearly $3 million in
energy bills. And in March, the Paiutes broke ground on a solar
energy park, a project said to be the first utility-scale solar
project on tribal lands.
The 350-megawatt project enough to power 100,000 homes
is expected to come online next year and provide the tribe
with hundreds of jobs and a steady source of revenue. Like many
reservations, the Moapa Paiute community is plagued with poverty,
unemployment and alcoholism. The solar park opens up the door to
But the coal ash is still there. Last August, the tribe joined
a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure
that once the plant closes, the coal ash and other waste are disposed
of properly. And in December, the EPA is expected to release the
first-ever federal regulation on coal ash management.
For the small tribe, it's a big win: protecting not only its
air and water, but its way of life.
"This is my home. This is where I grew up. My dad helped build
this house," said Hernandez. "I'm not gonna leave my home."
Ranjani Chakraborty contributed to this report.