LAS VEGAS (AP) – A tiny Native American reservation outside Las Vegas is trying to persuade the federal government that its community faces serious health risks from a nearby coal-fired power plant by appealing to a nationwide campaign to increase visibility at national parks.

The Moapa Paiute tribe has 300 members, roughly half of whom live on the reservation bordering the Reid Gardner Generating Station in rural southern Nevada. For years, tribe members have complained of skin irritation, lung disease, thyroid problems, aggravated asthma, cardiovascular and heart disease and frequent nose bleeds. Their insistence that these health woes can be linked to the foul air pouring from the plant’s multiple smoke stacks have long been ignored, largely because there is no direct medical evidence to back up their claims.

The tribe is hoping to get its voice heard on Thursday, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency holds its first public hearing on the coal plant at the reservation. The meeting is part of an ongoing effort to improve visibility at national parks and wilderness areas by curbing pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The Reid Gardner plant affects visibility at five national parks, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Zion in Utah and Joshua Tree National Monument in California, according to the EPA. The agency has already approved new air pollution limits for nitrogen oxide emissions at Nevada’s two other coal-fired power plants. But numerous complaints involving the Reid Gardner plant prompted the agency to hold public hearings in the area Thursday to field concerns from community members who don’t want to see the 45-year-old facility upgraded. They prefer it be shut down permanently.

Under the 1977 Clean Air Act, the EPA has been ordering coal plants to embrace new technologies and equipment designed to reduce pollutants that obscure visibility of the nation’s many stunning vistas and natural landscapes.

In the West, average visibility has dropped from 140 miles to between 35 to 90 miles. The goal is to protect what visibility remains, said Colleen McKaughan, an associate director in the EPA’s air division.

“That haze obscures the scenery, especially out here in the West where a lot of people come to see the vistas,” she said.

McKaughan said Thursday’s meetings were not intended to address anecdotal health complaints. Still, she said the EPA is generally interested in valid health problems caused by pollution.

“We understand why they would prefer not to breathe this stuff. We totally get it,” she said.

When coal is burned, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury compounds are released into the air, according to the EPA. Research has shown those fine particles can be linked to serious health problems, including premature death.

But the Moapa Paiute tribe can only rely on general data to back up their claims. Despite their health concerns, the tribe has been unsuccessful in persuading local, state and federal health officials to investigate their complaints.

The lack of direct evidence has stroked accusations that the tribe’s medical problems have been exaggerated by environmental activists who want to see the coal plant shuttered.

Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, who represents Moapa, said the plant creates much needed jobs and tax dollars for the area.

“They are using those Indians as a vehicle to shut down the plant,” Collins said of the Sierra Club. “As long as they are complying with the laws, (the plant) benefits the entire community.”

The Reid Gardner facility provides enough electricity to power 335,000 Nevada households, according to NV Energy, the utility company that operates the plant. Under the EPA proposal, NV Energy would have five years to install nitrogen oxide burners, instead of more expensive selective catalytic emissions scrubbers that environmentalists claim do a better job of reducing emissions.

NV Energy has completed a series of upgrades at the plant in recent years aimed at reducing emissions. The utility worked with the state and the EPA to come up with the new emission limits.

“We will continue our commitment to operate the Reid Gardner station in an environmentally responsible manner, in compliance with all federal and state laws, and in the best interests of its customers,” said spokesman Mark Severts.

Opponents argue the EPA’s air pollution limits fall far short of protecting public health.

“They built these smoke stacks on top of the housing where these people live full-time,” said Jane Feldman, conservation chair of the Southern Nevada Group of the Sierra Club.

The tribe’s concerns focus largely on air quality, but coal plants can create other environmental troubles, according to the EPA. Runoff water can sweep heavy metals from the coal into nearby bodies of water. The Muddy River near the plant feeds into Lake Mead, the massive reservoir that serves Mexico, California, Nevada and Arizona.

“Second-rate pollution control is not good enough here,” said Dan Galpern, a lawyer representing the tribe and the Sierra Club in Nevada.

When coal is burned, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury compounds are released into the air, according to the EPA. Research has shown those fine particles can be linked to serious health problems, including premature death.

Moapa Band of Paiute Indians Photo |