Navajo Generating Station Owners Propose Alternative To Reduce Emissions

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The coalition of power companies operating the Navajo Generating Station near Page have proposed an alternative way to reduce pollutants that will allow the plant to keep generating electricity until 2044.

The Environmental Protection Agency that had earlier demanded $1 billion in new pollution controls welcomed as a “step forward” the proposal by the Salt River Project and other owners of the coal-burning plant.

The EPA had proposed requiring the plant owners to install expensive equipment to reduce the release of nitrogen dioxide emissions from the 24,000 tons of coal burned every day. Plant operators had said they would probably shut down the plant if the EPA insisted on the controls, intended to reduce respiratory problems in the region and protect visibility in the Grand Canyon and 11 other national parks.

The plant owners said the proposed rules would do little or nothing to improve visibility in the Grand Canyon.

However, they recently countered with a proposal to shut down one of the three generators at the 22250 MV coal-fired plant by 2020 and to install additional pollution controls on the remaining reactors by 2030. By 2044, operators would convert the plant to something besides coal, a potent producer of gasses thought to play a role in climate change.

Critics of the EPA regulations like state Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson) have sharply criticized the original regulations, saying they won’t reduce haze or protect health, but will damage the regional economy. Most of the power for the Navajo Generating Station goes to pump 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water uphill about 3,000 feet so it can run through a 336-mile-long pipeline to Phoenix and Tucson. The plant also represents a major source of jobs and revenue on the Navajo Reservation, which suffers a chronic unemployment rate approaching 90 percent.

Experts continue to debate the role of emissions from the plant in the increase in haze during the winter inversion layer months in the Grand Canyon.

One study that followed a tracer injected into the smokestacks concluded that emissions from the plant accounted for 70 percent of the SO4 and 40 percent of the light-scattering haze in the winter months at Hopi Point.

But another study by the U.S. Department of Energy predicted that the $1 billion worth of new pollution controls would have little or no impact on the haze that has grown more frequent in the canyon.

The offer to shut down one of the generators to avert the need to install pollution controls immediately comes as two of the major financial partners and customers for the plant have said they want to get rid of their ownership shares. Power companies in Los Angeles and Nevada own about one-third of the plant.

Critics of the EPA regulations say the federal agency doesn’t have the legal authority to impose regulations and that the plant shouldn’t have to make any changes at all. They maintain the health effects are negligible and the impact on haze in the region largely unproven. However, the restriction could harm the struggling local economy and drive up both water and electricity costs in the region. They say the longer timeline makes more sense, but still imposes needless costs.

They insist that the restrictions on the Navajo Generating Station represent an all-out effort to shut down coal-burning plants nationwide. The coal industry says that already required pollution controls for new plants makes it virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired plant in the United States, despite the nation’s wealth of coal deposits.

On the other hand, many environmental groups say the federal government should move vigorously to reduce pollutants from the plant.

A fact sheet released by the National Parks Conservation Association notes that the plant is the eighth-largest in the nation and the largest on the Colorado Plateau. The plant emits an average of 30,000 tons of nitrogen oxide, 4,200 tons of sulfur dioxide and 10 millions tons of carbon dioxide. The plant also releases 420 pounds of mercury annually.

The EPA’s originally proposed regulations would have reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by 84 percent, at a cost comparable to pollution reductions elsewhere.

A position paper posted online by the Sierra Club said that an earlier round of pollution controls in the 1990s reduced sulfur dioxide emissions linked to acid rain by 90 percent, without causing major economic problems.

The position paper cited studies by the Clean Air Task Force, which put the annual health effects of emissions from the plant at 16 premature deaths, 25 heart attacks, 300 asthma attacks, 15 emergency room visits for asthma attacks and $127 million in annual health costs.

Critics of the regulations dispute those estimates.

EPA officials generally welcomed the latest proposal by the plant operators. The EPA will review the proposal, then hold a fresh round of public hearings in November to gather public comments. The five hearings between Nov. 12 and Nov. 15 will include sessions in Phoenix, Page and the Hopi village of Kykotsmovi.

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