Rocky Mountain Power is appealing a federal ruling to improve visibility and reduce regional haze from vistas such as this viewpoint at Arches National Park. The company operates two coal-fired power plants in Emery County that have been determined to be contributors to air pollution in the region. [Photo by Eric Trenbeath / Moab Sun News]

Rocky Mountain Power is challenging a federal mandate that would require it to reduce regional haze around Arches and Canyonlands national parks by installing up-to-date emission control systems on two coal-fired power plants upwind of Moab.

The company plans to appeal a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruling that orders it to put in additional technologies to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from its Hunter and Huntington power plants in Emery County.

The EPA and the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) have determined that the plants are likely contributors to regional haze that leads to impaired visibility at Canyonlands and Arches, as well as Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef national parks.

The EPA issued its ruling in June after rejecting several DAQ proposals to reduce regional haze.

“The new environmental controls would cost our customers $700 million with negligible results in reducing regional haze,” Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson Paul Murphy said.

Murphy said that the company has already spent $500 million on pollution control systems, and that visibility improvements are already being realized. He said that the State of Utah’s plan will achieve greater improvements for visibility at a much lower cost to his company’s consumers.

Grand County Council member Mary McGann said that protecting air quality should be the highest priority, and that the power company is only concerned with its bottom line. That’s a sentiment that the Sierra Club – which is leading a campaign that urges the company to drop the appeal – shares.

“There has never been a corporation (that) has done what’s best for the health of people and the environment,” McGann said. “I’m not against corporations, but they have to be monitored.”

McGann said that if rates need to be increased, then that’s the price we have to pay, and that people will have to be more conscientious about how they use energy.

“It’s a question of what we want for ourselves, and our children,” she said. “Do we want them to be able to live healthy lives?”

Utah DAQ Director Bryce Bird said that the Hunter and Huntington plants would have to demolish and reconstruct much of their facilities in order to install the additional selective catalytic reduction controls. The process removes an estimated 80 to 90 percent of nitrogen oxide in a coal-fired power plant’s exhaust gas by converting it to nitrogen and water.

In addition to the high cost, Bird said, it would impact the reliability of the company’s generating system.

“(Selective catalytic reduction) is not an off-the-shelf technology,” he said. “It has to be designed into each plant individually.”

Bird added that the state’s haze plan did not require the installation of the additional controls because studies have shown that a reduction in nitrogen oxides over Utah’s national parks has not resulted in greater improvements to visibility.

“Utah’s decision (not to require the technology) is based more on limited benefit than on high cost,” Bird said.

Bird said that in the West, the contributors that impair visibility differ greatly, and that plans developed in different states are tailored to the local conditions.

“This region has low levels of ammonia that are limiting the reaction with nitrous oxide to produce ammonium nitrate, a significant cause of visibility impairment,” Bird said. “That is not necessarily the case in other states where (selective catalytic reduction) makes sense.”

Known for their dramatic vistas, Utah’s national parks experience impaired visibility due to anthropogenic – or human-caused – haze 83 percent of the time, according to air quality monitoring studies performed at Canyonlands.

In March 2015, National Park Service officials sent a letter to the EPA urging the agency to reject the DAQ’s proposal for improving regional air quality, and to instead require the installation of the additional technology at the coal-fired plants.

“The State of Utah clearly values the importance of the five national parks in Utah and actively promotes park tourism, yet at the same time it appears unprepared to fulfill its legal requirements under the Clean Air Act … to protect and enhance the very scenic views that attract millions of visitors to the parks every year,” former National Park Service Associate Regional Director Tammy Whittington said in the letter.

McGann said that the health of Moab’s economy relies on clear skies, and that people come from all over the world to see the famous vistas in our national parks.

“For too long, coal-fired power plants have been allowed to dump pollution into our skies, threatening the vitality of our national parks, and the health of local communities,” McGann said.

Lindsay Beebe, an organizing representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said that the power company’s plans to appeal the EPA ruling could stall the implementation of common-sense standards, while continuing to impact nearby parks and communities with pollution.

“The decision to challenge the EPA’s plan to reduce haze pollution is out of touch with the types of clean air protections that Utahns and communities across our region want and deserve,” Beebe said.

She said that EPA’s haze rule does not mandate the new technology, but that it requires a 76 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides at Hunter and Huntington consistent with the “Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART)” and the federal Clean Air Act.

“This rule will significantly improve air quality at Utah’s most impacted parks, like Canyonlands and Capitol Reef, and is the same standard that has been implemented at coal plants in neighboring states like Arizona and Colorado,” Beebe said. “Utah’s parks deserve no less.”

Bird says that Utah has the best visibility of any state in the nation and that it rates low with regard to human contributions to visual impairment.

“Utah has been at the forefront of pollution-reduction efforts in the western United States, with emission-reduction milestones from coal plants achieved seven years ahead of EPA’s schedule, and completion of the Regional Haze State Implementation Plan five years earlier than most states,” he said.

He said the state is weighing its options, including an appeal of the EPA ruling, either separate or with Rocky Mountain Power. But ultimately, he said, the DAQ is responsible for implementing the Clean Air Act requirements.

“Utah will continue to work with regional partners, stakeholders and the public to find practical, affordable and effective ways to improve visibility as well as strategies for dealing with pollution transport into the state,” Bird said. “This approach will continue to reduce regional haze, maintain the quality of life and support tourism and economic growth in Utah.”

Sierra Club calls move “out of touch” with residents’ concerns about clean air

The new environmental controls would cost our customers $700 million with negligible results in reducing regional haze.