Steam rose from the cooling towers at Rocky Mountain Power's coal-fired Huntington Power Plant in Emery County. Members of Utah's congressional delegation introduced a resolution this week that aims to repeal a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation that requires Rocky Mountain Power to install additional emissions-control technologies at the Huntington and Hunter plants. [Photo courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey]

Utah’s congressional delegation moved this week to undo a federal mandate that requires two coal-fired power plants upwind of Moab to spend up to $700 million on additional pollution-control technologies.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced resolutions that would repeal the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) June 2016 plan to reduce haze-forming nitrogen oxide emissions from the Hunter and Huntington plants in Emery County.

Speaking with the support of the state’s delegation, Chaffetz said that the agency exceeded its statutory authority when it rejected the Utah Division of Air Quality’s (DAQ’s) plan to regulate those emissions. In doing so, he said, it imposed significant costs on the utility’s customers, without any “discernible benefit” to the public.

“Utah has developed a state implementation plan that complies with the statute without driving up the price of power,” Chaffetz said in a prepared statement. “That’s a significant accomplishment. By rejecting EPA’s regional haze rule, we enable Utah to implement its existing plan to address air quality without imposing costly and unnecessary new burdens that raise the cost of living for all who consume power.”

“The great state of Utah already has proposed a perfectly safe and effective nitrogen oxide regulation regime,” Lee added. “The EPA’s costly new regulations would add hundreds of millions to the power bills of working families and all for an imperceptible change in visibility.”

If Congress approves the delegation’s joint resolution and President Donald Trump signs it into law, Moab resident Marc Thomas and Grand County Council member Mary McGann fear it would hamper efforts to clean up the air around Moab.

The 1,320-megawatt Hunter Plant near Castle Dale and the 895-megawatt Huntington Plant near the town of the same name are directly upwind of Moab, and the EPA found that Canyonlands National Park is most affected by emissions from the two plants.

Thomas – a member of the Sierra Club – said that everyone from National Park Service officals to local elected leaders and residents spoke in favor of the EPA’s plan during a 2016 public hearing on the issue.

“Obviously, in our area, we strongly support the rule and believe it benefits air quality and visibility at our national parks,” Thomas said.

McGann said she was not surprised when she first heard that Chaffetz and Lee introduced their plans to repeal the regional haze rule, although she said she’s disappointed in their “lack of foresight.”

“To me, it’s irresponsible not to use the best technology that’s available to protect our air,” she said.

Rocky Mountain Power has already spent an estimated $500 million on pollution-control technologies at the two Emery County plants. Under the EPA’s regional haze plan, the company would be required to install additional controls on four generating units at the plants that would remove an estimated 80 to 90 percent of nitrogen oxide – or 9,885 tons per year – in each plant’s exhaust gas by converting it into nitrogen and water.

By the EPA’s own estimates, Lee said, implementation of the plan will result in 5 to 10 percent rate increases, and Rocky Mountain Power External Communications Director Paul Murphy said his company would pass those increases on to its customers.

“It would cost an additional $700 million, but it would not make any difference as far as (anyone) can see with regional haze or visibility,” Murphy said.

McGann said that she’s willing to pay more for her power each month – or use less of it – as long as those costs lead to improved air quality around Moab.

“I will conserve more, or pay extra, to preserve our air, and many people feel the same way,” she said.

Castle Valley resident Bill Rau, meanwhile, said that Lee’s position on the issue minimizes the effects that regional haze can have on people’s health.

“For the record, Lee’s statement shows how little concern the Utah delegation has for clean air in the state and the health of residents and hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to the southeastern Utah region who will be impacted by reducing the causes of (poor) air quality,” he said.

Agencies disagree on approaches to curb regional haze

The EPA and the DAQ both agree that emissions from the two plants likely contribute to regional haze and reduced visibility at places like Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District.

But the two agencies have differed in their approaches to curbing the plants’ emissions of nitrogen oxide. After years of reviews, the EPA last June partially approved and partially disapproved the DAQ’s plan to reduce those emissions – which the state calculated largely by factoring in the 2015 closure of the outdated 172-megawatt Helper coal-fired power plant near Price, as well as prior improvements to Hunter and Huntington.

Both Rocky Mountain Power and the DAQ have appealed the EPA’s haze rule, taking their legal challenge to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court has not yet issued a ruling on the state’s request to stay the rule, and DAQ Director Bryce Bird said that until it does, the state’s haze plan remains in effect.

“It is the state’s position that the plan developed and submitted by the state met the requirements of the Clean Air Act and the regional haze rule,” Bird said.

Former DAQ scientist Colleen Delaney, who worked as the lead on the agency’s plan to control emissions from the two plants, has noted that the state spent more than 15 years working to address the issue of regional haze pollution.

“You miss something if you just look at the current action without seeing what’s been done before,” Delaney told the Moab Sun News in late 2014.

According to the DAQ, Rocky Mountain Power has reduced sulfur dioxide emissions from the two plants by about 66 percent since 2008; nitrogen oxide emissions 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.

Still, 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 83 percent of the time. 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 somewhere between 35 and 90 miles.

In addition to affecting the region’s sweeping vistas, the EPA has said 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.

In a place that’s renowned for its unique landscapes and dramatic views, Thomas said he’s concerned that without further air quality regulations, the region could lose the very things that brought him and his wife Judi Simon from Chicago to Moab.

At first, Thomas said, his wife was “not all that interested” in moving to southeastern Utah – that is, not until he took her to the Green River Overlook at Island in the Sky.

“That view is what made her fall in love with the beauty of this area,” Thomas said.

But when guests visit them nowadays, he said, they no longer take them to the overlook because regional haze often mars the views there.

“The signature view that made this area no longer exists,” he said.

For her part, McGann said that she believes the delegation’s actions are short-sighted, comparing them to recently enacted congressional efforts to dismantle the EPA’s stream protection rule.

“This is our home,” she said. “It’s the only one we have, and I know I don’t want my home filled with pollutants.”

Bird, however, said the DAQ has documented improvements in air quality at Canyonlands since the state first developed its plan in 2003 – and especially since the Helper Plant shut down two years ago.

“We have seen the worst-visibility days improving, as well as the best-visibility days, from those controls that were put in place,” he said.

Rocky Mountain Power and the State of Utah are still waiting for a final ruling on their appeals of the EPA’s ruling: According to Murphy, they filed their most recent paperwork on Friday, March 10, without consulting Chaffetz’ or Lee’s office in advance.

“We didn’t contact any of the legislators about the action they’re taking, but it is in line with the actions we’re taking through the courts,” Murphy said.

While the EPA approved the rule during former President Barack Obama’s administration, it’s unclear at this point if President Donald Trump or new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt plan to defend their predecessors’ decision.

“We don’t know whether or not the EPA would want to reconsider its ruling,” Murphy said.

When all is said and done, though, Murphy believes the appeal will succeed.

“We think the science supports Rocky Mountain Power’s and the state’s position,” he said.

Congressional resolution would scrap plan for additional pollution controls at Emery County power plants 

We didn’t contact any of the legislators about the action they’re taking, but it is in line with the actions we’re taking through the courts.