Pueblo power debate: ‘All of the impacts, few of the benefits’

Xcel produces 1,410 megawatts of electricity in Pueblo — enough to power at least a million homes — but sells none of it to local residents. It does, indirectly, sell a percentage of that power to Pueblo households through Black Hills, which has a franchise agreement with the city, but will do so only until the end of next year, when the current contract is set to expire.

Black Hills has plans in the works for a natural gas plant in Pueblo that it hopes to have up and running before its contract with Xcel expires. And until last month, plans were underway for an “energy park” that was being marketed as a renewable energy project but which would have relied heavily, at least initially, on nuclear power.

Pueblo is commonly perceived as a natural hub for power plants and industrial facilities: its proximity to a rail line and the Arkansas River means it has the infrastructure to support them, and its lower average per capita income translates into a higher-than-average need for jobs.

Ask people who live in the area, however, and Pueblo has gotten the raw end of the political and economic stick.

“Can we afford to hire lobbyists who go up and sit outside the [Colorado Public Utilities Commission] and go to all their meetings?” said Margaret Barber, president of Citizens for Clean Air and Water in Pueblo/Southern Colorado. “No, we can’t afford that. Boulder can. Wealthier communities can do that.”

Barber and others are concerned about the health effects of the power plants in Pueblo, even if they have a hard time proving a direct link between the two. Despite independent studies, including several endorsed by the American Lung Association, proving the adverse effects of particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants on respiratory health and the predictable increase in deaths from existing health conditions on high-pollution days, it is impossible to pinpoint any health trends in Pueblo on the industrial facilities located there.

“Any increases in air pollution will adversely affect lung function in healthy people,” said Dr. Velma Campbell, an occupational health specialist in Pueblo. People already facing health conditions like emphysema or coronary artery disease, she said, “will be adversely affected by increases in air pollution, even increases within legal limits.”

Over the next decade, Xcel will shut down coal-burning units at power plants in Denver and Boulder as part of its plan to come into compliance with the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act. The locations were chosen in part because these units are older and less efficient, and because of a federal mandate to meet air quality standards in the surrounding region. Denver is what known as a nonattainment zone for certain pollutants, meaning air pollution levels exceed national standards. Pueblo does meet those standards, at least on paper.

According to a source who asked to remain anonymous, a former Pueblo Health Department official said a few years ago that Pueblo is an attainment zone specifically because the city removed air quality monitors it used to have, and no longer does thorough testing.

To determine where a city stands on air quality, the air quality has to be monitored. “People assume there’s air monitoring happening all the time,” said Dr. Campbell. “Many of these things are based on fragmented data and incomplete monitoring.”

“In Denver, they have monitoring for ozone levels and particulates to a greater degree than we do,” she added. “But in Pueblo, and small towns out on the plains, there may not even be air monitoring.”
Pueblo does monitor local air quality, but does so with two monitors: one that measures particulates 10 microns and smaller in size, and the other 2.5 microns and smaller. Denver County monitors air quality at seven different sites, several of which have multiple monitors each.

Some are concerned that, even using existing methods of monitoring, Pueblo is close to being a nonattainment zone because of the concentration of power plants and industrial facilities there. “It’s not going to take much to push us over that limit,” said Ross Vincent, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Sangre de Cristo Group. “We’ve allowed them to pollute our air to the point where it’s becoming a real problem.”

Exactly how it came to be that Xcel produces so much power in Pueblo without agreeing to supply the city itself is unclear. When plans for the Comanche 3 plant expansion were getting underway, extensive negotiations took place between Xcel and members of the Pueblo community and environmental groups around the state.

During those talks, Xcel made a number of concessions to the community and the Comanche units are all relatively clean now, as far as coal plants go. When asked why the current arrangement of selling power to Black Hills is being terminated, Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz acknowledged that during the Comanche negotiations, there were “concerns about capacity.” But, he said, Black Hills made the final decision to end the contract years later.

Larry Howe-Kerr, then-Director of the Office for Social Justice for the Diocese of Pueblo, said, “We did have conversations about how Xcel should continue to provide power to Acquilla, but we had no leverage on that matter whatsoever.”

Vincent does not recall those conversations. “I think most of us assumed — I know I did — that, of course, the power produced at Comanche would be available to Pueblo businesses and residences,” he said. “I know that local economic development boosters saw it as a huge benefit for future growth.”

For Pueblo residents, the result is that the city bears the brunt of the effects of the power plants, but does not reap the benefits. “We are already producing far more energy than we will ever need,” said Vincent. “Pueblo is being used to produce power for people on the northern Front Range using technology that people on the Front Range wouldn’t tolerate.”

As for jobs, the opportunities created by power plants are primarily limited to construction and do not sustain the local economy long-term. When talk of a new facility comes to town, people in Pueblo do welcome the job opportunities that come with it, but Barber argues that’s an unfair way to look at it. “People with low income averages need work, so when a big corporation brings in the promise of money and jobs, people grasp at that regardless of the long-term consequences for health,” she said.

And while the nearby water supply helps keep the power plants up and running, it is another point of contention between the power companies and the community. “I’m not sure we have unlimited water resources here,” said Barber, “but you might find the powers that be willing to sell it or allow it to be used for power production because they need money.

“If the power plant uses it, somebody else can’t,” she said, citing the 2005-06 drought as an acute example of the local power play for water access. The water board in Pueblo gave priority access to power plants over local farmers, and some farmers were unable to plant crops that year. Others had to ship their cattle to Texas because they could not grow enough grass, she said. “They did not have strong enough political influence to assure that the water flowed down to them. But the big corporation did.”

For Howe-Kerr, it boils down to a non-financial bottom line. “The fact that it might be convenient for the power industry to concentrate here is beside the point,” he said. “The impact is still the same. The result is the same. When you’re talking environmental justice, it’s the result.”

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