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Grand Canyon Coal Plant

Deal Is Short-Term Band-Aid

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Close-up of the flue gas stacks and SO2 scrubber absorber, looking northwest on the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona.
The EPA Has Approved A Proposal By The Self-Proclaimed Technical Working Group — Led By Salt River Project And Other Plant Owners — That Will Reduce Emissions At The Navajo Generating Station By One-Third


By Clipper Arnold
Special for Modern Times Magazine

Aug. 6, 2014 — Arizona will continue to use mostly coal to power the pumps that provide drinking water to the state’s major metros — and are mainly blamed for smogging up the views at the Grand Canyon — for the next decade or so, but at reduced levels.
Last week, the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued a ruling that adopted an approach to achieve emission reductions at the Navajo Generating Station, a 2250 mW coal-fired power plant located in Arizona, that exceeded EPA mandated emission reductions without installing retrofit technology, rather by reducing emissions by one-third. The most likely scenario to reach that goal is closing one of the three generators.

This should be big news for everyone. The Environment America Research and Policy Center said in a 2013 report that the Navajo Generating Station was the 10th dirtiest in the country and the single dirtiest plant west of Texas.

But despite the trumpets from the operators of the plant that their solution would exceed EPA admission requirements, some think that it is nothing but a bunch of hooey.

Most of the ‘reduction in emission’ plans regarding coal plants across the country are solely concerned with health and environmental concerns, but the NGS is different. The plant is less than 50 miles from the Grand Canyon and when the wind blows to the southwest, it makes the symbol of this state hazy and a little like L.A.

But regardless of the plant’s location, the EPA is required by the Clean Air Act to develop and enforce regulations in order to protect the public from pollutants. In order to comply with these standards and continue to produce energy, coal facilities must install pollution control equipment to reduce emissions by 70 to 95 percent.

A similar plan was put forth for the NGS by the EPA in 2013 that mandated new pollution controls by 2018, but Salt River Project and other plant owners balked at the $1 billion cost.

In late 2013, the stakeholders, now called ‘the Technical Working Group’ — a coalition of stakeholders which includes SRP, the Navajo Nation, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and a hodgepodge of various other interest groups — proposed closing one of the units in 2019 as well as installing pollution controls to the others by 2030. The production of the unit being shut down would be roughly equivalent to the shares owned by California and Nevada, who may be getting out of the dirty coal facility anyway.

It is this counter-proposal that was accepted last week by the EPA.

The plant constitutes an enormous chunk of both the Navajo Nation’s economy (as it’s located on tribal territory) as well as Arizona’s. Additionally, the Central Arizona Project, the biggest aqueduct system ever constructed in the United States, is 90 percent powered by the Navajo Generating Station. Essentially, the station provides a noteworthy portion of water and power to Arizona residents: basic services for any civilization.

Scott Harelson, Media Relations Manager for SRP, said, “The ruling is the culmination of quite a bit of time and effort to find an alternative that would meet the EPA's requirements, but would also allow for us to continue operations… The process that we used was to identify a group of stakeholders who have an interest in the plant as well as the impact the plant has on the region. The stakeholders were a diverse set of individuals representing varying interests.”

He also said compliance with ‘Best Available Retrofit Technology’ would be an expensive and risky investment considering that the lease with the Navajo Nation will have to be renegotiated and renewed in 2020.

While the TWG is heralding this as a great compromise that would be better than installing the pollution controls, detractors such as the Sierra Club are very critical of the EPA’s final ruling. Harelson said the Sierra Club dropped out of the TWG roughly a year ago because discourse wasn’t heading in a direction they felt they could support.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said the TWG was more interested in avoiding spending on emission controls than complying with the Clean Air Act.

“The Sierra Club had agreed to participate on the discussions based on the premise that the proposal would be better than what the EPA initially proposed in order to achieve greater emission reductions and meet the timeline. It became clear that this would not be the case. We simply can't agree to things that don't meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act,” she said.

Bahr said this latest agreement is the culmination of decades of delays regarding SRP’s inability to comply with EPA standards. She told me that in order to be compliant with the Clean Air Act, the facility would be required to reduce their emissions by 85 percent in the given timeframe. This feat could be achieved if the pollution controls were implemented (as they have been at other facilities), however, the plan accepted by the EPA to shut down one of the three units will only reduce emissions by a third in 2020. Past that, it is uncertain when and how additional measures will be taken.

“We are unsatisfied with the final outcome and we think the EPA made a big mistake. It has a responsibility to both the people of Arizona and the American public to choose a plan that will achieve pollution reduction within the 5 year timeframe, protect public health, and clean up the air around the Grand Canyon,” she said.

She says there is no clear path to compliance, and that SRP is exaggerating expenses — opting for short-term solutions and prolonging the process to run dirty as they have in decades past until they are policed by litigation and required to make changes. She also says that SRP will be pushing any expenses of shutting down the unit onto Arizona water and energy consumers who will also still be subjected to noncompliant and unhealthy air.

Under this temporary solution, it’s possible that if the lease is renewed, the facility will continue to run dirty for another decade or so before it’s threatened by non-compliance again and may face a shutdown. It’s likely no one would like to see the plant shut down entirely, though the Sierra Club has expressed large disappointment in the EPA for acquiescing to cost-effective interests which ultimately push harmful and unfair externalities onto Arizona residents, American citizens, and Native Americans.

SRP is not necessarily sure how long the facility will continue to operate ‘as is’ and what measures will be taken to become fully compliant in the future. In general, coal power has been on the decline over the past few decades as more regulations and alternative energies box out dirty energy production. Harelson said various alternative energy products are constantly being added to the SRP portfolio in order to comply with national standards. SRP implements solar, wind, and geothermal energy sources elsewhere in Arizona, though it is unlikely NGS could be adapted into an alternative energy facility.

While many coal facilities simply implement pollution controls successfully and continue to run, SRP is worried the investment might have diminishing returns for themselves and other shareholders. At this point, It is unclear how much longer the sky over the Grand Canyon will remain overcast by uncertainty, doubt, and smog.

For some, tomorrow wouldn’t be too soon.

Clipper Arnold is a writer from the Phoenix metro.
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