EPA looks to clean up coal-generated brown cloud in Four Corners region, Navajo Nation

Mesa Verde National Park.

While the Four Corners area is one of the most remote regions of the lower 48 states, it’s also home to some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the nation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) earlier this month set out to remedy that situation.

Citing health concerns on the nearby Navajo Nation and air-quality issues around some of the nation’s most iconic national parks – including Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado – the EPA announced a plan that will compel PNM’s San Juan Generating Station to cut nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 80 percent over the next five years.

Located 15 miles west of Farmington, N.M., the San Juan plant generates 1,800 megawatts of coal-fired power for more than 2 million customers across the Southwest. Built in 1973, it’s on the top 10 list for most emissions among coal plants in the West.

Reacting to inaction by the state of New Mexico in developing a plan to curb emissions, the EPA says its plan “relies on proven, cost-effective and widely used technologies to protect public health in New Mexico and neighboring states by cutting dangerous nitrogen oxide emissions by over 80 percent from one of the nation’s largest polluting power plants.

“These efforts will dramatically improve visibility in 16 park and wilderness areas in the southwestern U.S., decreasing the number of days with impaired scenic views and as a result, promoting local tourism.”

The EPA extended the compliance window from three to five years based on public comments. But PNM officials immediately said they’ll appeal the long-anticipated decision, predicting it will require an investment of more than $750 million to install selective catalytic reduction technology on all four units at the San Juan plant. Company officials said the federal emission goals can be met with different technology for just $77 million.

“The EPA plan adds unnecessary costs to one of our lowest-cost sources of reliable power,” said Pat Themig, vice president of generation for PNM. “If it stands, it will lead to significantly higher future electric rates for the 2 million customers who rely on the plant for reasonably priced power.”

Navajo Nation health and conservation advocates praised the ruling.

“Over the years, we’ve seen more and more children and adults coming in with asthma and respiratory problems, especially from the areas affected by the coal plant emissions,” said Adella Begaye, a Navajo Nation nurse with more than 20 years of experience in the area. “Big polluters such as the San Juan and Four Corners coal plants have to be held responsible for the health costs they cause.”

The EPA also targeted the 48-year-old Four Corners Power Plant on the Navajo Nation near Fruitland, N.M. That facility is considered the dirtiest in the West in terms of nitrogen oxide emissions.

The new plan is the first in the nation requiring pollution controls to curb nitrogen oxide emissions under Clean Air Act regulations addressing regional haze. Such federal regulation was what the state of Colorado and Xcel Energy avoided by working together with environmental groups to draft and pass the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act in 2010.

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