America Tonight

David vs. Goliath: A tiny tribe takes on big energy

The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians thought coal ash from a nearby plant was killing them off, so they fought back

Catch more from our “Dirty Power” series on air and online all this week.

MOAPA, Nev. — 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 her people. 

Windy days

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. 

Surita Hernandez
America Tonight

For 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.  

Vicki Simmons
America Tonight

“My 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.”

Getting attention

Correspondent Sarah Hoye stands with William Anderson on a cliff facing out on the Reid Gardner Generating Station.
America Tonight

William 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 energy.”

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 waste.

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 standards.

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

America Tonight

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 financial independence.

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. 

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter