Regional haze is still marring the views at Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks during the winter months, despite ongoing efforts to bring the air quality into compliance with a landmark federal law.
In response, environmentalists and public health advocates are urging the Utah Air Quality Board to adopt stricter controls on emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from two coal-fired power plants in Emery County.
“We think that the state should be doing a much stronger regional haze rule because of the impacts on the national parks,” National Parks Conservation Association Southwest Senior Program Manager Cory MacNulty said.
But the Utah Division of Air Quality says the emission-control upgrades at the two facilities near Castle Dale and Huntington could cost operator Rocky Mountain Power – and its customers – as much as $650 million. Even then, there’s no guarantee that they would yield any results, according to Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) environmental scientist Colleen Delaney.
“The benefit that we would get from these additional reductions is not certain,” Delaney said.
The public comment period on the state’s plan is set to close on Dec. 22, and state regulators are expected to submit it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for final approval early next year. As the public comment period winds down, MacNulty is encouraging Grand County residents to weigh in on the proposal.
“I think that the state needs to hear from people in rural Utah who are directly impacted,” MacNulty said.
Both sides acknowledge that the history – and the science – behind efforts to control regional haze is complicated, to say the least.
At the federal level, those efforts date back to at least the 1970s, and they picked up in 1990, when former President George H.W. Bush signed a series of Clean Air Act amendments into law.
In 2008, the state came up with its original plan to tackle the issue of pollution from regional haze.
Four years later, the EPA approved a majority of the state’s implementation plan to reduce regional haze at national parks and high-quality airsheds. But it rejected portions of the plan that dealt with nitrogen oxide and particulate matter pollution from Rocky Mountain Power’s Huntington and Hunter power plants, hence the new plan.
According to Delaney, the state has spent more than 15 years working to address the issue.
“You miss something if you just look at the current action without seeing what’s been done before,” Delaney said.
According to Delaney, Rocky Mountain Power has reduced sulfur dioxide emissions from the two plants by about 66 percent since 2008; nitrogen oxide emissions have dropped by about 40 percent during the same period. Releases of mercury and particulate matter from both plants are also on the decline, according to Delaney.
“It’s a little frustrating to me that this has been portrayed as a do-nothing (plan),” she said.
However, Grand County Councilman-elect Chris Baird supports the nonprofit group HEAL Utah’s calls for even more stringent regulations to curb emissions from the two facilities.
Baird said he believes that the 895-megawatt Huntington plant and the 1,320-megawatt Hunter plant contribute to degraded air quality at places like Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
“For Grand County, they’re probably the biggest contributors, as a result of their proximity and the direction that the wind blows,” Baird said.
While the Clean Air Act amendments deal specifically with visual impacts to national parks, Baird and others want state regulators to take steps that address concerns about potential threats to public health.
Baird notes that pollutants in regional haze contribute to early-onset asthma and chronic bronchitis, and he believes that new improvements at the plants could go a long way in cleaning up the air.
“If the technology exists to have cleaner coal-fired power plants, then I think we should have them,” Baird said. “I think it’s obvious that you should pay to prevent people from getting sick.”
Health alerts often advise people to stay indoors on days when Utah’s air quality is poor, he noted, yet Grand County’s economy depends on getting people outdoors.
“You can’t tell the people who come to see the national parks not to step outside,” Baird said.
HEAL Utah Executive Director Christopher Thomas acknowledges that the Clean Air Act amendments deal with aesthetic impacts, but he wants state regulators to consider the plants’ impacts on public health, as well.
“They do have profound health implications,” Thomas said.
According to Thomas, coal-fired power plants in neighboring states, including Arizona and New Mexico, have committed to reducing their nitrogen oxide emissions by an estimated 80 to 90 percent.
“They have had to go the extra mile,” he said.
At the national level, Thomas estimates that various plans to combat regional haze will save $7 billion in health care costs; Utah alone could reduce its health care costs by about $209 million under more stringent regulations, he believes.
Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen said his company has already taken major steps to address Thomas’ concerns.
Since 2000, the company has invested heavily in natural gas and wind power, along with an estimated $600 million in improvements to the Hunter and Huntington plants.
Eskelsen says his company expects that the transition away from coal-fired power will continue over time.
“But we believe it will be and should be gradual,” he said.
Although state regulators have noticed a drop on nitrogen oxide emissions in recent years, Delaney says they believe that a chemical reaction involving ammonia may ultimately be contributing to the haze problem.
“It’s kind of a complicated explanation, but the essence of it is we aren’t certain that emission reductions of nitrogen oxides will actually lead to visibility improvements during these winter months because of this potential issue with ammonia,” she said.
Group calls for more stringent regulations to curb emissions
“If the technology exists to have cleaner coal-fired power plants, then I think we should have them … I think it’s obvious that you should pay to prevent people from getting sick.”
For more information about the state’s regional haze plan, go to http://www.airquality.utah.gov/Public-Interest/Public-Commen-Hearings/Pubrule.htm; click on “Memo and Plans” under “SIP Section XX.D.6,” dated Oct. 8.
To learn more about HEAL Utah’s campaign, go to http://healutah.org/campaigns/coal/.