WASHINGTON — A coalition of environmental advocacy groups this week petitioned federal agencies to join its efforts in pressuring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require the strictest of pollution control upgrades at Four Corners Power Plant.

EPA is in the process of drafting regulations requiring plant operator Arizona Public Service Co. to install equipment that reduces the facility's emissions of regional haze-causing pollutants, including nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

At question is the balance between total upgrade costs and potential air quality. The proposed technological improvements range between a $121 million upgrade capable of removing at least 30 percent of the pollution and a $1.07 billion upgrade that would eliminate as much as 90 percent of the haze-causing materials, according to APS. That, plant officials say, could affect jobs.

The company has warned if EPA requires the most expensive improvements, the high costs could force a shutdown of a portion of the Fruitland power plant, laying off more than 300 area plant workers and affecting hundreds of additional coal mining jobs at the neighboring San Juan Mine.

But environmental advocacy groups from across the country assert the haze-impaired view of neighboring national parks and wilderness areas is a national concern. Environmentalists allege the problem is directly caused by emissions from Four Corners Power Plant, New Mexico's No. 1 nitrogen oxide polluter, and insist the best possible cleanup should be required.

EPA is in the process of reviewing 6,700 submitted public comments and drafting the proposal of what emissions improvement equipment will be required at the Four Corners Power Plant, according to the agency.

Hoping to encourage EPA to implement the most stringent regulations, environmental groups have turned to other affected federal agencies for additional pressure.

A petition to the U.S. National Park Service, Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service requests the federal agencies certify to EPA impairment-of-visibility issues. The concern includes at least 16 neighboring national parks and wilderness areas and is "reasonably attributable to air pollutant emissions for Arizona Public Service Company's coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant," according to documents filed this week in Washington.

"We would hope that the finding would trigger the maximum (emissions) reduction in order to protect these Class 1 (national park and wilderness) areas," said Stephanie Kodish, clean air counsel with the National Parks Conservation Association, a lead organization in the appeal.

Joining the petition were Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians. Local environmental advocacy organizations including the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Diné CARE and Dooda Desert Rock also sponsored the measure.

The coalition in the petition allege haze in regional national parks caused by the Four Corners Power Plant is 25 times greater than what the EPA allows from a single entity.

The economic consequences of the highest pollution controls at Four Corners could be limited, Kodish said, claiming APS exaggerated improvement costs by nearly 20 percent.

If true, APS's estimate of a $1.06 billion investment could instead cost around $850 million to implement, a savings that could alter EPA's cost-benefit analysis of what improvements are possible, Kodish said.

"I know the environmental community is extremely sensitive to that (economic) issue and wants to be sure in an equal way that people are provided for," Kodish said, based in Knoxville, Tenn. "This is a survival issue. I think you might be hard pressed to find advocates to disregard those issues."

A spokesman for APS said the company is reviewing the petition filed this week by environmental groups and will continue to evaluate the potential costs of emissions-control equipment throughout the ongoing EPA review to find the best available environmental improvement.

"We're taking a good look a that," APS spokesman Damon Gross said of the petition. "But we're interested in working on solutions to help protect the environment. We're interested in any discussion to that end."

The company said it intends to comply with whatever requirements EPA imposes.

An EPA official said it isn't clear how the petition to federal agencies seeking to certify the Four Corners Power Plant as a direct contributor to haze in regional national parks would alter the improvement process already under way.

"I don't know if this petition will affect that," said Colleen McKaughan, associate director of the regional EPA Air Division. "At this point, we're just going to keep doing our work and wait to see if we hear from the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture. Right now it's not changing anything."

A first draft of proposed improvements at Four Corners Power Plant could be issued by EPA this year. Once approved, the necessary upgrades would be required at the plant within five years, according to EPA.

 

James Monteleone: jmonteleone@daily-times.com