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.
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.