Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi addressed reporters during a Jan. 26 press conference ahead of an Environmental Protection Agency public hearing on the state's regional haze implementation plan. [Photo by Lara Gale / Moab Sun News]

With air quality at Arches and Canyonlands national parks on the minds of local residents, a group of community leaders and others urged federal officials last week to enact tougher controls on two power plants in Emery County.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a Jan. 26 public hearing on its two different proposals to either approve the state’s regional haze control plan in full, or to reject portions of the plan that deal with nitrogen oxide emissions from the two plants.

Under its first proposal, the EPA would fully approve Utah’s most recent plan, which factors in the April 2015 closure of the Carbon Power Plant near Helper, as well as past upgrades to the Hunter and Huntington power plants west of Moab.

The EPA’s second approach would only approve the state’s plan for mitigating particulate matter. Under this approach, the state’s proposal to control nitrogen oxide emissions from Rocky Mountain Power’s Hunter and Huntington plants would be rejected and a Federal Implementation Plan would be imposed in its place.

Speaking ahead of the agency’s hearing in Salt Lake City, Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi said that as a mother and a council member, she’s concerned about air pollution and its effects on both visibility and health.

“Our world-class vistas bring people from all over the world, creating a multi-million dollar tourism industry,” Ershadi said. “But the intrinsic value of clear, healthy air is much greater.

“Of the EPA’s two options included in their plan, there is only one clear choice,” she continued. “I am proud to stand with the National Park Service and many others in asking the EPA to adopt strong and fair clean air protections that include industry-standard pollution technology that will improve visibility in the parks as well as take harmful pollutants out of our air.”

Hundreds of men and women representing communities where the coal-mining industry is a major employer and economic driver arrived in Salt Lake City at nearly the same time as Ershadi and other members of the Moab group. Coal miners, mining industry vendors and other stakeholders voiced their concerns that the agency’s proposal would only further injure an already-hurting energy sector.

“I’m not opposed to clean air,” Skyline coal mine maintenance planner and former Ephraim city council member Craig Johnson told the Moab Sun News. “But the EPA and these standards will have a majorly detrimental effect on my livelihood,”

“We all agree that we need to take care of the environment,” Skyline maintenance foreman Willis Adams said. “But they’ve already invested in decreasing pollution. They do something, and the EPA just comes back with new regulations. We’re not above working together, but they need to level the playing field.”

The state submitted the latest revisions to its regional haze implementation plan in June and October 2015. On Jan. 16, the EPA published a proposed rule-making action that takes two different approaches to the plan.

The agency’s proposal is rooted in a federal law which mandates that states must address existing haze from human-caused pollution and prevent it from worsening in Class 1 airsheds, including national parks and wilderness areas. To help with that, the law requires certain large sources of pollution to install the Best Available Retrofit Technology that removes haze-causing pollutants from their emissions.

HEAL Utah Executive Director Matt Pacenza said the EPA’s first option would essentially allow the state to get away with doing nothing to decrease particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions in the near future.

“They’re not saying ‘We’ll do this instead of that,’” he said. “They’ve got earlier, less-effective technology in place and they’re saying those are already doing good, and other actions they’ve already taken are doing good, so they don’t want to do anything else.”

The state isn’t causing the problem, he added: Rocky Mountain Power parent company PacifiCorps is the entity that is digging in its heels.

Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen told the Moab Sun News last year that his company believes the state’s proposal falls in line with the outcome that the EPA is seeking.

“You actually get better results with the state’s plan than you would with greater nitrogen oxide controls,” Eskelsen said at the time.

The utility does have a vested interest in controlling its strategy for plant maintenance, Utah Division of Air Quality Director Bryce Bird said. At the same time, Bird conceded readily that the utility also significantly impacts Utah’s air quality.

The state is not questioning whether Hunter and Huntington are major polluters in a Class 1 area, he said: It is proposing that the EPA should consider the investment that the utility has already made in technology to come into full compliance with the Clean Air Act.

“The amount of visibility gained by the particular controls they want to put in place does not justify the cost,” Bird said.

The utility’s long-term strategy is informed by a holistic picture of energy resources and technologies, he said, and doesn’t necessarily include sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into retrofitting coal-fired power plants.

That brings the entire issue to its most serious “pain point” – that the energy sector is facing major changes, and those changes are negatively affecting communities with economies built on the status quo, local activist Will Munger said.

Munger works with Canyon Country Rising Tide in Moab to address the root causes of climate change on the Colorado Plateau. He spent much of the day of the hearings talking with the miners and others in the group voicing “opposing” opinions. His takeaway was that neither side of the discussion was addressing the real problem.

“They didn’t address that coal is not a sustainable industry,” he said. “What is going to be the means by which rural Utah sustains itself? That is the question.”

Ershadi said that she came away with so much appreciation for the people in that room.

“We have more in common than not,” she said.

Community members interested in participating in national and regional efforts to address energy concerns can follow the EPA’s Regional Haze website for notifications of future public hearings, Bird said. The plan can be found at

Bird said he welcomes and encourages a more robust community dialogue.

“The key message is that the State of Utah Department of Environmental Quality recognizes that haze is real and its mitigation vital,” he said. “The experience at Utah’s national parks is enhanced because you can see for 200 miles, and you can’t do that anywhere else in the country. We have to find ways to care for that asset without compromising other assets.”

Environmentalists and coal miners speak, as EPA considers state proposal