Water vapor rises from the cooling towers at Rocky Mountain Power's coal-fired Huntington Power Plant in Emery County. [Photo courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey]

With just two weeks left before a ruling, conservationists and outdoor industry leaders are urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reject the State of Utah’s proposal for regional haze reduction in area national parks.

The federal agency has until Thursday, Nov. 19, to decide on the state’s proposal, which doesn’t require Rocky Mountain Power’s Hunter and Huntington coal-fired power plants to install the most up-to-date pollution control systems.

The EPA and the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) have determined that the plants in Emery County are likely contributors to regional haze and reduced visibility at the state’s five national parks, including Arches and Canyonlands.

A Sierra Club petition with over 30,000 signatures, and a letter signed by more than 100 outdoor industry leaders, athletes and clean air advocates, was sent to EPA Region 8 Administrator Shaun McGrath, urging him to require stricter pollution control systems on the two plants.

“Requiring the Hunter and Huntington coal-fired power plants to install modern, achievable pollution controls to reduce dangerous haze causing emissions is necessary for the health of our national parks, Utah communities and families, and the local economy,” the letter said.

The letter cites the importance of clean air in national parks to Utah’s $7 billion recreation and tourism economy, and notes that more than 10 million people visited the state’s national parks last year.

Black Diamond Equipment founder and former CEO Peter Metcalf said that the future vibrancy of the outdoor recreation and tourism industry is threatened “when governments allow material damage to be done to our air, water or remaining natural environments.”

Metcalf said that in addition to recreation and tourism, national parks are an integral way of life for Utahns.

“National parks are why so many people choose to settle here,” he said. “It is time for the EPA to clear the haze and for Utah to get serious about prioritizing the protection of that which is driving our economy and what is integral to the Utah quality of life.”

States are required by law under the Clean Air Act to reduce haze pollution in national parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges.

In June of this year, the Utah Air Quality Board approved a plan for reducing regional haze to improve visibility in national parks, in spite of protests from the National Park Service, which said the plan didn’t go far enough.

In a letter to the DAQ, the park service urged the state to “take strong action” by requiring the installation of Selective Catalytic Reduction systems to reduce emissions of nitrous oxide and particulate matter that impair visibility and contribute to regional haze.

National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) Senior Program Manager Cory MacNulty said she thinks that Utah’s plan is insufficient.

“The proposal sent by the state of Utah to EPA does absolutely nothing to cut the nitrogen-oxide pollution from the Hunter and Huntington coal plants.” MacNulty said. “This pollution obscures up to 30 miles of the spectacular scenic landscapes that should be visible through Delicate Arch and from the Island in the Sky viewpoint in Canyonlands National Park … NPCA is asking EPA, at the very least, to require the same level of pollution controls as has been required for our neighboring states.”

According to the EPA, visual range in western national parks has been reduced from 140 miles to between 35 and 90 miles primarily due to “anthropogenic,” or human-caused, haze. Long-term monitoring at Canyonlands National Park indicates that visibility in Arches and Canyonlands is impaired by anthropogenic haze 83 percent of the time.

DAQ environmental scientist Colleen Delaney told the Moab Sun News that the state’s proposal provides an alternative to best-available retrofit technology requirements for the Hunter and Huntington power plants. She said the recent closure of the coal-fired Carbon Power Plant, combined with previously installed low-nitrogen oxide burners at the Hunter and Huntington plants, will achieve the reductions that the EPA is seeking.

“Greater emission reductions were achieved at a much lower cost …. than would have been achieved by requiring Selective Catalytic Reduction systems on the Hunter and Huntington Plants,” she 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, she said.

Delaney said that the effects of nitrogen oxide reduction on regional haze are still uncertain, and that it is important to weigh the costs and benefits before requiring the installation of expensive technology.

“We all agree that it is an important thing to protect visibility in national parks,” she said. “But we aren’t sure controlling nitrogen oxide will achieve the desired result.”

Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Paul Murphy said that his company has already installed environmental controls that do more to prevent regional haze than what the Sierra Club petition is asking for. He said the State of Utah recognizes that the Sierra Club proposal would cost hundreds of millions of dollars without further reducing regional haze.

“This is one more attempt by the Sierra Club to shut down all coal plants, no matter what it costs our customers,” Murphy said.

Company releases new sustainable energy plan

Rocky Mountain Power recently announced its Sustainable Energy and Transportation Plan (STEP), which aims to reduce emissions, while strengthening the economy in Utah.

Murphy said the plan includes incentives to reduce the use of fossil fuel power plants along the Wasatch Front, to create the state’s first community with net zero emissions and to put thousands of electric vehicles on Utah’s roads.

As part of the plan’s clean air and energy component, emissions reductions from power plants will be voluntary, and the company will continue to make investments in “clean coal” research. Additionally, the company will continue to fund energy efficiency programs and promote solar power development.

It also plans to accelerate payments on its power plants to allow more flexibility in adapting to environmental regulations.

“With this plan, customers will be better protected from the risk of high prices if environmental laws such as the Clean Power Act, or other uncertainties make coal become more expensive to use for producing electricity,” Murphy said.

The plan doesn’t call for any change in the operations of Hunter and Huntington power plants, and it’s uncertain how the plan would affect regional haze and visibility in national parks. But Murphy said his company wants to promote clean air and energy, economic development and a sustainable energy policy.

In response to Rocky Mountain Power’s announcement to the STEP program, Bill Corcoran, Western regional director of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, said it signaled hope. But his group needs to see more than words, he said.

“We need to see real action and commitment to improve air quality and support the growth of clean energy in Utah,” Corcoran said.

Utility says effort is just the latest attempt to shut down coal plants

National parks are why so many people choose to settle here … It is time for the EPA to clear the haze and for Utah to get serious about prioritizing the protection of that which is driving our economy and what is integral to the Utah quality of life.