EPA moves to clear the air in Four Corners region

Conservation groups seek more fundamental shift to renewable energy

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Grand Canyon hikers should be able to breath a little easier and enjoy more expansive views, as the EPA continues to mandate air quality improvements in the Four Corners region.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — After years of back and forth over the toxic pollution spewing from the San Juan Generating Station in the Four Corners region, The EPA and PNM New Mexico have reached an agreement to address air quality issues by shutting down two of the dirtiest coal-burning units.

Conservation groups say the plan is a step in the right direction, but will scrutinize the deal to make sure it complies with clean air regulations. Replacing coal with natural gas only delays the needed transition away from fossil fuels to a renewable energy future, said Mike Eisenfeld, of San Juan Citizens Alliance.

”Closure of two units at SJGS is in line with the economic realities that coal is in decline as a way to generate electricity,” said Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance. “We are greatly concerned over the replacement of coal … with natural gas, when proven renewable energy, specifically solar at the SJGS site, should be the preferred replacement.”

“Despite facing extreme pressure to allow weaker standards, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6 … released adequate requirements for the San Juan Generating Station, which finally bring it in line with the standards dictated by the Clean Air Act’s regional haze rule,” said National Parks Conservation Association Clean Air Counsel Stephanie Kodish.

“The clean-up plan requires one of the nation’s dirtiest coal plants to install modern pollution controls; controls that are routinely used at other coal plants nationwide. We strongly support the EPA in applying similar standards to other antiquated power plants currently belching pollution into national parks across the country,” Kodish said.

“For decades, San Juan Generating Station has mucked up the air in gems of the southwest like Mesa Verde and Canyonlands national parks. “While far from a done deal, this initial agreement represents a positive step towards reducing the plant’s impact on people and ecosystems,” she added.

Bacground

In August of 2011, the EPA issued a rule forcing the utility to install pollution controls to significantly cut the 16,000 tons a year of harmful haze, ozone, and fine particle-producing nitrogen pollution that pours from the Farmington, New Mexico plant’s smokestacks each year. Then last spring, a federal court denied an attempt by New Mexico and the power giant to suspend the EPA’s decision, thus requiring the utility to move forward with plans to install pollution controls that would meet the 2011 rule.

For decades, air pollution from coal-burning power plants have been a major source of harmful haze in the Four Corners region, clouding the air and views in treasured, economically important national parks, like the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde.  Premature deaths, asthma attacks, heart attacks, chronic bronchitis, and hospital visits caused by San Juan Generating Station’s pollution cost an estimated $255 million a year, according to the Clean Air Task Force.

Nitrogen oxides, one of the pollutants at issue in this case, react with other compounds to form small particles that penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs. It is also a raw ingredient in the formation of ground-level ozone, which leads to asthma attacks, respiratory problems, lung damage, and even premature death.

Western Environmental Law Center and Earthjustice are representing San Juan Citizens Alliance, National Park Conservation Association, Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, and Sierra Club in the effort to ensure that San Juan Generating Station complies with the minimum clean air protections required by the Clean Air Act

“While we are encouraged that the agreement will transition away from two units of dirty coal-burning power, until PNM and the State of New Mexico release the air quality modeling that explains the visibility and public health benefits of their alternative, we cannot assess the  value of the agreement,” said Earthjustice attorney Suma Peesapati.  “Any alternative approach to EPA’s federal plan must meet the minimum requirements of the Clean Air Act.”

Navajo Generating Station

In another step that should help clean up Four Corners air quality, the EPA has also proposed air pollution limits for the Navajo Generating Station, one of the largest sources of harmful nitrogen oxide emissions in the country. The 2,250 megawatt power coal-fired power plant is located on the Navajo Nation, less than 20 miles from the Grand Canyon, near Page, Ariz. and the Utah state line.

The cleanup proposal, released last month, aims to improve visibility t 11 national parks and wilderness areas in the Southwest, as required under the Clean Air Act. The EPA calculates that the plan will reduce visibility impacts by about 73 percent at the parks and wilderness areas in the region.

Nitrogen oxide reacts with other chemicals in the air to form ozone and fine particles, both associated with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and even premature death.

“By reducing emissions 84 percent, we will be able to breathe cleaner, healthier air and preserve the visibility essential to the economic vitality of the region,” said Pacific Southwest regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld. “The millions of tourists who visit national parks in Arizona and Utah every year will now be able see vistas once marred by pollution.”

EPA’s proposed emission limit can be achieved by installing an effective, readily available pollution control technology known as Selective Catalytic Reduction, which, in combination with the existing low-NOx burners the facility voluntarily installed between 2009 and 2011, would reduce emissions by 28,500 tons per year, by 2018.
EPA is proposing to give the plant an additional five years, until 2023, to install new controls to achieve the emission limit. This flexibility recognizes the importance of NGS to numerous tribes, and the environmental benefits provided by the early installation of low-NOx burners in 2009. EPA is also requesting comments on other options that could set longer timeframes for installing pollution controls if the facility can achieve additional emission reductions.

EPA is prepared to issue a supplemental proposal if other approaches satisfy the Clean Air Act requirements and meet the stakeholders’ needs.

EPA has engaged extensively with local tribes, the Salt River Project, the Central Arizona Project, the agricultural community and other stakeholders regarding impacts on power and water costs.

Earlier this month, a joint statement signed by the EPA, Department of the Interior and Department of Energy commits each agency to helping develop “clean, affordable and reliable power, affordable and sustainable water supplies, and sustainable economic development, while minimizing negative impacts on those who currently obtain significant benefits from NGS, including tribal nations.”

A 90-day public comment period, including public hearings, for the proposal is currently under way. Get more information on commenting at http://www.epa.gov/region9/mediacenter/ngs.

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