Pollution concerns: Electric plant review carries interstate implications
An Environmental Protection Agency proposal to impose new pollution controls related to a past upgrade of a northeastern Utah coal-fired power plant could have cross-border environmental and economic implications in northwestern Colorado.
From an environmental perspective, the agency’s action involving Deseret Power Electric Cooperative’s Bonanza Power Plant is winning support from entities including conservation groups, the National Park Service and the Ute Indian Tribe. But others, including the town of Rangely, Club 20 and Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, fear the potential economic impacts should the plant be told to add expensive new controls.
In the worst case, said Club 20 executive director Bonnie Petersen, Deseret could decide the most financially prudent response would be to close the plant, resulting in the loss of nearly 300 well-paying jobs in the region, including at the Deserado Mine outside Rangely, which sells all the coal it produces to the plant. Almost half the 164 mine workers live in the Rangely area, resulting in significant numbers of high-wage people in a town of just 2,400, said Rangely Town Manager Peter Brixius.
“It would devastate our community” if the mine closed, he said.
Club 20 says the mine generates more than $10 million in state and county taxes.
Jeremy Nichols, with the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, said all the EPA is doing is asking for the plant to comply with the law.
“If they can’t, then they’ve got to make a tough decision here,” he said.
He added, “I think it’s great that we’re finally having a conversation about what’s the appropriate future for this power plant.”
WildEarth Guardians has raised the issue of the plant’s emissions in connection with the mine as well. The Bureau of Land Management approved leasing of an additional 3,155-acre tract at the mine that would add some 21 million tons of recoverable coal and extend the life of the plant, which otherwise would run out of coal from its sole supplier in about nine years. In a federal lawsuit against the BLM and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, which approved a related mining plan modification, the group said the agencies failed to analyze the air quality impacts not only of expanded mining, but of extending the life of the power plant. It noted the high ozone and particulate-matter levels being experienced in the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah and the Rangely area.
REVISITING A PAST DECISION
The EPA’s current action involves looking back at its 2001 permit decision in connection with the Deseret Power Electric Cooperative’s installation of a “ruggedized” turbine rotor, intended in part to deal with blade-breakage problems with the previous rotor.
In documents on the new review, the agency says it erred in its earlier action because it relied on faulty analysis by the state of Utah and didn’t conduct a complete, independent analysis of the project. It tentatively has concluded the project has caused a significant net increase in nitrogen oxide emissions and as a result was a major modification requiring what’s called a Prevention of Significant Deterioration review.
Deseret declined to comment on the EPA issue. But it did point to comments it has submitted to the agency.
Among other things, it contends in those comments that any increase in emissions resulted from increased generation due to growing demand, rather than from the project; that the EPA is ignoring the beneficial result from the installation of low nitrogen-oxide burners ahead of the project; and that the agency can’t seek to revise a 2001 permit based on a purported error it discovered more than a decade later.
If the EPA requires expensive new controls on a project that’s already completed, “Deseret will not have the option of simply foregoing the project as it could have done if it had been given fair notice of these consequences during the pre-construction review,” it said.
The town of Rangely says the new controls would further tax a cooperative that is still paying off the costs of the ones installed 15 years ago. Brixius said new controls could cost about $200 million.
“That would raise our rates to the tune of 40 percent,” he said, referring to Deseret’s six member rural electric cooperatives, including Moon Lake Electric Association, which serves an area including the Rangely region.
That’s assuming Deseret would go forward with the new controls, he said. Other options would include closing it or converting it to natural gas. Petersen said the latter option also would trigger a 40 percent rate increase.
“The real economic impact in a decision requiring … installation of more pollution controls at the Bonanza power plant will be borne by a dwindling middle class and economically disadvantaged residents in the area,” Petersen wrote to the EPA.
Closing the plant or converting it to gas use would suit just fine the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.
“Old coal plants like Bonanza should be phased out or subject to more stringent regulations to control air emissions given the availability of newer clean technology like natural gas plants that emit fewer pollutants,” the tribe said in a letter to the EPA.
It argued that the plant “poses unacceptable public health impacts” that disproportionately affect tribal members and lands, and it cited ozone levels that sometimes top those in Los Angeles.
High ozone levels in the Uinta Basin have been a wintertime phenomenon believed to be related to temperature inversions that trap pollutants, and snow cover that reflects sunlight needed to help form ozone. Oil and gas development is thought to be a big contributing factor, while the plant’s role is under debate.
Rangely, in a “Save the Mine” information packet, cites a study by universities and agencies including the EPA that found the plant’s 600-foot smokestack results in its pollutants being emitted above the inversion layer and not significantly contributing contaminants to it.
Nichols said the stack may push pollutants above the inversion layer on some days, but he’s not sure that’s the case on other days.
“It’s an issue that warrants further scrutiny,” he said.
There’s also the issue of the particulate matter the plant emits, and the amount of pollution in general coming out of what he called a “massive” stack.
“I think that there’s still reason to be concerned,” he said.
The National Park Service sent a letter to the EPA supporting its new undertaking. The NPS argued back in 2002 that the rotor project should have been subject to review as a major modification for pollution-control purposes due to a possible significant increase in emissions. Dinosaur National Monument is northeast of the plant.
‘WAR ON COAL’
Brixius said the plant already has invested substantially in pollution controls and additional ones would provide minimal additional benefit. He believes the EPA’s action is just part of a larger agenda, like its proposal to cut carbon emissions from power plants, that constitutes “a war on coal.”
“It’s led by the (Obama) administration and many in Washington. I think the science is dubious. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an agenda-driven process to eliminate coal (power generation) in the United States,” he said.
Hundreds attended an EPA hearing in northeastern Utah on its proposal. Brixius said most spoke in support of the plant.
EPA spokesman Rich Mylott wouldn’t specifically respond to concerns raised by Deseret about the agency’s proposal. But he noted that a public comment period ended on June 16, and added, “We will provide a document that summarizes comments received and our response to comments when a final permit is issued.”
The agency received more than 2,000 comments.
It’s due to make a decision by Aug. 29, under a proposed consent decree with WildEarth Guardians, which sued it for its failure to take action within an 18-month timeline required by law.