August 2007

Commissioners urge clean-up of old power plants

By Gail Binkly

The Montezuma County commissioners have mixed feelings about the proposed Desert Rock power plant.

While the La Plata County commissioners, Durango City Council, and Cortez City Council have passed resolutions opposing the 1,500-megawatt plant planned in New Mexico, Montezuma County’s commission has yet to take a formal position on the controversial project.

They have, however, promised to support efforts to obtain funding for better air-quality monitoring equipment in the region.

Commissioner Larrie Rule told the Free Press it would be difficult for him to oppose Desert Rock.

“I don’t want my electricity to be shut off,” Rule said, emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, not the board.

“Air quality here — I don’t think it’s near as bad as what a lot of people say it is,” he commented.

A lifelong resident of the area, Rule said his wife, who is from Dayton, Ohio, has told him, “If you want to talk about pollution, go to Dayton.”

Rule said he realizes people don’t want the Four Corners’ air to even approach conditions back East, “but I don’t think that will happen because we don’t have the industry.”

He said many newcomers to the Four Corners moved from lower altitudes and are having problems adjusting. Also, many of those most concerned about ozone and other pollutants are elderly and more susceptible to respiratory ailments, he said.

Rule said the air in the Four Corners was not as pristine in the past as many believe. “I remember when everybody used to burn coal here — then there was a problem,” he said. “Everybody had a coal-burning stove because coal was cheap and burned hotter than wood. Along the Dolores River it was really terrible back in those days.”

He said efforts to stop Desert Rock might be better diverted to other goals.

“What they ought to be working on is getting them to clean up the Four Corners Power Plant,” Rule said.

That sentiment was echoed by Commissioner Steve Chappell.

“If I had my choice I would not have any of them,” Chappell said. “I don’t like those coal-burning plants. I don’t like the smoke in the air.”

But, he said, “our country is so dependent on electricity,” it’s difficult to get older plants shut down long enough to clean them up.

He said Desert Rock is getting the backlash from citizens angry at the Four Corners Power Plant, operated by Arizona Public Service, and the San Juan Generating Station, operated by Public Service of New Mexico (PNM).

Desert Rock, Chappell said, will be state-of-the-art, whereas the two plants in northern New Mexico have been “belching out that dirty air” for decades.

“We notice it here on Goodman Point,” said Chappell. “If the wind is blowing from the south we can see the haze that fills that valley. On the normal days, I can see that dirty haze going down the [San Juan] river. They’re probably the most impacted — Shiprock, Teec Nos Pos, those folks.”

The 2,040-megawatt Four Corners Power Plant, built in the 1960s, has long been one of the nation’s worstpolluting power plants. It sits on the Navajo reservation near Fruitland, N.M.

According to a recent report, the plant is tops in the nation for emission of total nitrogen oxide. In 2004 the plant emitted 40,742 tons of the pollutant. It also was among the top 25 emitters of carbon dioxide in 2004, with 15.1 million tons, and ranked 37th for mercury emissions, at 590 pounds per year.

Desert Rock would emit just 3,500 tons of nitrogen oxide annually, its promoters say.

The San Juan plant in 2004 emitted 26,880 tons of nitrogen oxide. 13.1 million tons of carbon dioxide, and 590 pounds of mercury.

In response to lawsuits, the San Juan station is installing $270 million of new technology to clean up its emissions.

But because Four Corners sits on tribal land, it could not be regulated by the state of New Mexico, and the tribe never created an implementation plan.

Finally the EPA stepped in to create a federal implementation plan. It took effect June 6, but on July 6, a coalition of environmental groups challenged it in the U.S. Court of Appeals, saying the new rules don’t go far enough.

“Rather than fight a battle you may not win, I would like to see stipulations that if this state-of-the-art electrical plant goes in, the [Four Corners plant] would be closed down until it can put in the scrubbers that would clean it up.

“They should be tied together,” Chappell said.

Commission Chairman Gerald Koppenhafer concurred.

“I would rather see a new plant with new technology than these old ones,” Koppenhafer said. “Tri-State and all these other electrical outfits, they are maxed out, they are being pushed to the limit as far as their production goes. How do they ever shut one of those down to fix it if there isn’t one to replace it? I don’t see how, unless people are willing to shut their electricity off.

“Some of these new plants, you hardly see anything coming out of them. I hate to see the darn air get worse here but I think the only way to get those older plants cleaned up is for there to be new ones.”

He also pointed out that Tri-State, supplier for Empire Electric, gets electricity from the San Juan Generating Station. “There’s so many people that think we don’t get power from down there and it’s wrong. Tri-State’s got lots of sources, but they’re all hooked together on that grid.”