Steam rises from the cooling towers at Rocky Mountain Power's coal-fired Huntington Power Plant in Emery County. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is giving the company five years to upgrade pollution controls at the Huntington and Hunter plants in order to reduce haze-forming emissions of nitrogen oxides. [Photo courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey]

Clearer skies around Moab are on the horizon, although they could come at a higher cost to Rocky Mountain Power’s customers, barring future legal challenges.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this month rejected the State of Utah’s plan to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides from four generating units at the Hunter and Huntington coal-fired power plants in Emery County.

Instead, the agency ordered power plant operator Rocky Mountain Power to install additional pollution controls at the two facilities within five years. The EPA says it expects that its final order will cut the plants’ emissions of haze-forming nitrogen oxides by 9,885 tons per year, which could improve the views in Moab and at Arches and Canyonlands national parks by 2021.

In the past, company officials have estimated that it could cost $700 million to upgrade the generating units at Hunter and Huntington. If the EPA’s order goes unchallenged, Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson Margaret Oler said the utility would likely pass those costs on to its customers by raising their rates.

“The result of the EPA’s action will significantly increase electric prices for customers without achieving EPA’s claimed emission benefit,” Oler said.

In the wake of the EPA’s announcement, Rocky Mountain Power said it plans to evaluate its compliance options and will then pursue a course of action that is in the “best interests” of its customers. In the meantime, Oler said the 1,300-megawatt Hunter Plant near Castle Dale and the 895-megawatt Huntington Plant near the town of the same name will continue to operate “reliably and cost-effectively” to meet their needs.

Both plants are vital components of Emery County’s economy. At a public hearing in Salt Lake City last February, coal miners, mining industry vendors and Emery County residents voiced concerns that the EPA’s proposal would only further hurt an already-hurting coal industry in communities like Castle Dale.

But the reaction in Moab has been strikingly different among elected officials who have publicly urged the agency to take action in favor of stronger environmental standards.

“It’s a bright beacon in what oftentimes feels like a bleak landscape for environmental issues,” Grand County Council member Mary McGann said. “It’s a good win for our children and our grandchildren.”

Rocky Mountain Power has already installed selective catalytic reduction systems that further reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at some of its other coal-fired power plants. Local clean-air advocates say they only wanted the company to do the same thing at the Hunter and Huntington units.

“No one was asking Rocky Mountain Power to close those power plants now,” Grand County Council member Chris Baird said. “We were just asking them to clean them up.”

Baird noted that emissions from both plants affect air quality as far away as the Grand Canyon. But they have an even more direct effect on visibility in and around Moab, he said, since it’s downwind of the plants.

“We actually get the brunt of it,” Baird said. “The prevailing winds shoot straight at us.”

The National Park Service’s Intermountain Region office in Denver has pointed to studies which found that anthropogenic – or human-caused – haze obscures the views at Canyonlands National Park 83 percent of the time. Far beyond southeastern Utah, the EPA says that human-caused haze from power plants and other sources has reduced the views at national parks in the West from a distance of 140 miles to between 35 and 90 miles.

Apart from affecting the region’s sweeping vistas, the EPA says that nitrogen oxides and other chemicals in haze pose potential threats to people who suffer from respiratory problems such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis.

Nitrogen oxides react with ammonia, moisture and other compounds to form small particles, which can penetrate sensitive parts of human lungs, causing or worsening breathing difficulties. Haze-forming pollution can also aggravate heart disease, according to the EPA.

State says it disagrees with EPA decision

A Utah Division of Air Quality spokesperson said the agency does not have responses to the Moab Sun News’ specific questions about the EPA’s regional haze plan, pending its official publication in the Federal Register. But Utah Division of Air Quality Director Bryce Bird said in a prepared statement that his office shares the EPA’s goal of improving visibility at national parks, and will continue to work toward that end.

“We are, however, disappointed with the decision because the Utah plan relied on sound science and common sense, improving visibility at a reasonable cost to Utah ratepayers,” Bird said. “We will review the decision in greater detail and meet with key stakeholders before deciding our next steps.”

The division released its plan to control regional haze in 2008. Although the EPA later approved a majority of that plan, it rejected portions that dealt with nitrogen oxide and particulate matter pollution from the four units at Hunter and Huntington.

After years of back-and-forth between the state and federal agencies, Sierra Club “Beyond Coal” campaign organizing representative Lindsay Beebe said the EPA’s announcement was overdue, but welcome.

“This process has been long and delayed, and this is what we’ve been fighting for, for many years,” she said.

Beebe said the changes could lead to a 76 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions that affect visitors’ experiences at national parks.

“It’s a strong standard that Arches and Canyonlands deserve, and our great public lands deserve,” she said.

Former Utah Division of Air Quality environmental scientist Colleen Delaney, who worked extensively on the state’s plan before she retired, has said that critics should not overlook the accomplishments that Utah regulators achieved over the past 15 years.

As recently as 2008, Rocky Mountain Power made significant upgrades to pollution controls at both plants, and Delaney said last year that nitrogen oxide emissions from the two plants have already dropped by 50 percent.

More recently, Delaney said that the 2015 closure of the Carbon Power Plant near Helper would further improve regional air quality.

The Carbon plant’s generating capacity of 172 megawatts was much smaller than either one of the Emery County plants. But its emissions were much greater, she said, because the antiquated plant was built in the 1950s, before pollution controls like selective catalytic reduction systems were commonplace.

Oler said her company believes that the state based its plan on substantive scientific analysis. She said it satisfied the regional haze plan’s objectives to steadily improve visibility at national parks and other prime airsheds over time, while achieving greater improvements than the EPA’s proposal.

Although the EPA’s plan gives Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company PacifiCorp five years to bring the plants into compliance, Beebe hopes the changes will happen earlier, rather than later.

“If PacifiCorp and the state really jump on this, we’ll see those improvements sooner,” she said.

Rocky Mountain Power has said that it eventually plans to make a gradual transition away from coal-fired power, although billionaire investor Warren Buffett could have some influence on the pace of its long-term changeover.

Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway happens to own both PacifiCorp and Nevada utility NV Energy. Not long after it acquired NV Energy in late 2013, that company signaled its intention to move its portfolio away from coal and toward renewable energy and natural gas.

Beebe said that Rocky Mountain Power is unlikely to follow suit, although her organization would certainly embrace such a move.

“According to many of their statements, they’re heavily invested in the coal infrastructure here in Utah,” she said. “We would really welcome that transition and we would love to partner with them on it, but we have yet to see it.”

Decision could improve visibility at Moab-area national parks by 2021

We actually get the brunt of it … The prevailing winds shoot straight at us.