Coal plant faces hard decision

Impact expected from EPA proposal

Coal moves along conveyors at the Deserado Mine near Rangely. A northeastern Utah power plant is up against a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency to impose stricter pollution controls, which might prompt its closure as well as this mine; the mine sends all its coal to the plant. Enlargephoto

Christopher Tomlinson/The Daily Sentinel

Coal moves along conveyors at the Deserado Mine near Rangely. A northeastern Utah power plant is up against a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency to impose stricter pollution controls, which might prompt its closure as well as this mine; the mine sends all its coal to the plant.

An Environmental Protection Agency proposal to impose new pollution controls related to a past upgrade of a northeastern Utah coal-fired power plant could have cross-border environmental and economic implications in northwestern Colorado.

From an environmental perspective, the agency’s action involving Deseret Power Electric Cooperative’s Bonanza Power Plant is winning support from entities, including conservation groups, the National Park Service and the Ute Indian Tribe.

But others – including the town of Rangely, Club 20 and Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado – fear the potential economic impacts should the plant be told to add expensive new controls.

In the worst case, said Club 20 Executive Director Bonnie Petersen, Deseret could decide the most financially prudent response would be to close the plant, resulting in the loss of nearly 300 well-paying jobs in the region, including at the Deserado Mine outside Rangely, which sells all the coal it produces to the plant.

Almost half the 164 mine workers live in the Rangely area, resulting in significant numbers of high-wage people in a town of just 2,400, said Rangely Town Manager Peter Brixius.

Club 20 says the mine generates $10 million in state and county taxes.

Jeremy Nichols, with the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, said all the EPA is doing is asking for the plant to comply with the law.

WildEarth Guardians raised the issue of the plant’s emissions in connection with the mine, as well.

The Bureau of Land Management approved leasing of an additional 3,155-acre tract at the mine that would add 21 million tons of recoverable coal and extend the life of the plant, which otherwise would run out of coal from its sole supplier in about nine years.

In a federal lawsuit against the BLM and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, which approved a related mining plan modification, the group said the agencies failed to analyze the air quality impacts not only of expanded mining, but also of extending the life of the power plant. It noted the high ozone and particulate-matter levels being experienced in the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah and the Rangely area.

The EPA’s current action involves looking back at its 2001 permit decision with the Deseret Power Electric Cooperative’s installation of a “ruggedized” turbine rotor, intended in part to deal with blade-breakage problems with the previous rotor.

In documents on the new review, the agency says it erred in its earlier action because it relied on faulty analysis by the state of Utah and didn’t conduct a complete, independent analysis of the project. It tentatively has concluded the project has caused a significant net increase in nitrogen oxide emissions and, as a result, needs a major modification requiring what’s called a Prevention of Significant Deterioration review.

Deseret declined to comment on the EPA issue. But it did point to comments it has submitted to the agency.

Among other things, it contends in those comments that any increase in emissions resulted from increased generation due to growing demand, rather than from the project; that the EPA is ignoring the beneficial result from the installation of low nitrogen-oxide burners ahead of the project; and that the agency can’t seek to revise a 2001 permit based on a purported error it discovered more than a decade later.

If the EPA requires expensive new controls on a project that’s already completed, “Deseret will not have the option of simply foregoing the project as it could have done if it had been given fair notice of these consequences during the preconstruction review,” it said.

The town of Rangely says the new controls would further tax a cooperative that still is paying off the costs of the ones installed 15 years ago. Brixius said new controls could cost about $200 million.

“That would raise our rates to the tune of 40 percent,” he said, referring to Deseret’s six member rural electric cooperatives, including Moon Lake Electric Association, which serves an area including the Rangely region.

That’s assuming Deseret would go forward with the new controls, he said. Other options would include closing it or converting it to natural gas. Petersen said the latter option also would trigger a 40 percent rate increase.

“The real economic impact in a decision requiring installation of more pollution controls at the Bonanza power plant will be borne by a dwindling middle class and economically disadvantaged residents in the area,” Petersen wrote to the EPA.

Closing the plant or converting it to gas would suit just fine the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

“Old coal plants like Bonanza should be phased out or subject to more stringent regulations to control air emissions given the availability of newer clean technology like natural gas plants that emit fewer pollutants,” the tribe said in a letter to the EPA.

It argued the plant “poses unacceptable public health impacts” that disproportionately affect tribal members and lands, and it cited ozone levels that sometimes top those in Los Angeles.