New pollution controls at coal-fired plant near the Four Corners will benefit public health and reduce regional haze; Utility company says it will appeal the federal decision
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Residents of the Four Corners region and tourists in the famed national parks in the area will be able to breathe a bit easier after the EPA this week issued a final rule that will help cut harmful nitrogen oxide emissions from the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico by 80 percent. The coal plant also emits more than 5,500 tons of sulfur dioxide per year.
The EPA’s decision is part of a larger effort to implement Clean Air Act provisions that have long been ignored by state and and federal regulators. The rules require a reduction in regional haze that clouds views in more than 150 national parks and wilderness areas.
According to a Clean Air Task Force report, San Juan Generating Station is responsible for more than 80 percent of the air pollution at Mesa Verde National Park, just across the border in Colorado. It also contributes to air pollution at the Grand Canyon and many other nationally protected landscapes. Parks in the region support thousands of jobs and the millions of people who visit them each year contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to local economies.
The plant’s operator, Public Service Company of New Mexico, said it will appeal the ruling and warned in a prepared statement that the cost of retrofitting the plany with up-to-date pollution controls will increase energy prices for consumers.
The usual cast of characters, including business groups and some elected officials, lobbied against the new EPA rules, saying that a less aggressive state plan would cost less and also reduce air pollution, but the EPA’s exhaustive environmental study of the plant shows the state plan would not meet air quality standards.
The power company estimates it could cost up to $750 million to retrofit the plant, while according to the EPA’s economic analysis, the cost should be closer to $230 million.
Either way, the power company doesn’t take into account the indirect costs of the air pollution. By some estimates, premature deaths, asthma attacks, heart attacks, chronic bronchitis, and hospital visits from San Juan Generating Station’s pollution have cost an estimated $255 million a year.
The EPA decision to limit nitrogen oxide emissions from all four boilers at the San Juan plant will likely require the operators to retrofit the plant with selective catalytic reduction pollution controls. It’s the first federal plan in the country that will require adequate pollution controls to limit nitrogen oxide emissions under Clean Air Act provisions to reduce regional haze. There are decades-old plants with major pollution problems in more than 40 other states that will face similar decisions on pollution upgrades in the coming year or two.
Conservation groups see the limits on the San Juan plant as a possible bellwether of what’s to come at other plants. Requiring coal-fired power plants to comply with environmental laws could help speed the pace of transition to cleaner fuels.
At the most fundamental level, reducing the nitrogen oxide pollution is a public health issue. Nitrogen oxide reacts with other compounds to form small particles that penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs. It is also a raw ingredient in ground-level ozone, which the American Lung Association calls “the most widespread pollutant in the U.S. [and] one of the most dangerous.” Ozone leads to asthma attacks, respiratory problems, lung damage, and even premature death.
“Pollution from this plant has been hurting our communities for generations,” said Donna House with Diné CARE, a volunteer-driven conservation organization on the Navajo Nation in the FourCorners region. “Cutting coal pollution is a must, and moving to a cleaner energy than coal is the real answer.”
San Juan Generating Station currently dumps nearly 16,000 tons of nitrogen oxide into the air each year, making it the ninth worst polluter out of more than 40 coal plants in Western states. Together with the nearby 48-year-old Four Corners Power Plant (worst in the west for nitrogen oxide), the two coal-burning plants’ combined emissions account for at least two-thirds of total nitrogen oxide pollution in San Juan County where they’re located and a quarter of all nitrogen oxide emissions statewide in New Mexico. The American Lung Association has given San Juan County an “F” grade for ozone pollution due to the number of days each year that it surpasses levels of ozone concentrations that the ALA considers unhealthy.
“Over the years, we’ve seen more and more children and adults coming in with asthma and respiratory problems, especially from the areas affected by the coal plant emissions,” said Adella Begaye, a nurse with 20 years of experience on the Navajo Nation. “Big polluters such as the San Juan and Four Corners coal plants have to be held responsible for the health costs they cause.”
The state and San Juan Generating Station owner PNM had lobbied for far less effective pollution controls which would have cut nitrogen oxide emissions by just 20percent.
Other plants in the Southwest that will face pollution-control improvements include the 38-year-old Navajo Generating Station in Arizona (fourth worst among western state coal plants for nitrogen oxide pollution), Four Corners, and the 46-year-old Reid Gardner Station near Las Vegas. Long overdue deadlines are being set now for decisions on pollution-control upgrades at more than 70 aging coal-burning plants around the country.
The EPA stepped in as a result of the absence of an adequate state plan to reduce pollution at San Juan Generating Station. EPA’s decision to require an 80 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide pollution at the plant is broadly supported by other federal agencies, including the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as public health, environmental, tribal, and other community organizations regionally and nationally. These include San Juan Citizens Alliance, Diné CARE, WildEarth Guardians, National Parks Conservation Association, Earthjustice, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and others.
Western U.S. experts on energy and the environment praise the decision to reduce the dangerous air pollution from one of America’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants.
“EPA’s action to clean up the San Juan Generating Station will protect public health, and will also help clear the haze at Mesa Verde National Park and our other cherished wilderness areas in the Four Corners region,” said Pamela Campos of Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain office. “Today’s decision sets a strong precedent for reducing coal plant pollution, protecting our families’ health, and preserving our parks around the country.”
“We are pleased that EPA has not bowed to corporate pressure and is protecting our air quality and beautiful landscapes and vistas for ourselves and our children”, said Steve Michel, Chief Counsel for Western Resource Advocates’ Energy Program.
“The money that Public Service Company of New Mexico will need to spend to install the industry-standard pollution controls demonstrates how the cost of coal is rapidly increasing throughout the country,” said Bill Corcoran, Western Region Director, Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Coal is a horribly dirty and dangerous fossil fuel and it takes a tremendous toll on our health and pocketbooks each and every day. Especially as clean energy resources such as solar and wind have become more affordable, it is absurd that utilities would continue throwing their customer’s money at an increasingly expensive fossil fuel like coal,” he concluded.