Location, location, location


Last week, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter announced a preliminary agreement between the state, Xcel Energy, and some of the region’s traditional environmental groups over a plan to reduce air pollution along the Front Range by retrofitting, repowering (with natural gas), and even possibility retiring a number of urban coal-fired power plants. Although we have to wait until later this summer to learn the specifics, obviously any agreement to reduce coal consumption for energy generation is a great step toward protecting public health, reducing the haze that plagues the Front Range, and decreasing the state’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. So should you jump up from the computer and shout in joy?  Well, that might depend on who you are, and more importantly, where you live.

So far, it appears that the discussions surrounding last week’s agreement have utterly ignored the question of power plant placement in Colorado. The reality is that communities, often consisting of lower-income, minority, or otherwise underrepresented residents, will continue to bear the brunt of public health impacts associated with energy production in the state. Absent from the Governor’s announcement, for instance, is the reality that as Xcel nears agreement to potentially reduce emissions from 900-megawatts of coal-fired capacity, it is anxiously pursuing completion and start-up of the state’s newest and largest coal-fired electric generating unit – the 750-megawatt Comanche Unit 3. Situated at the doorstep of Pueblo neighborhoods, Comanche Unit 3 will spew hundreds of tons of toxic air pollutants into the air over its lifetime.

Then there is the curious case of the Lamar Repowering Project. In a 2006 decision by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that now seems directly contradictory to the proposed Xcel agreement, the state approved an application to replace the City of Lamar’s defunct natural gas generating unit with a 47-megawatt coal-fired power plant.  The new plant, which like Comanche 3 is near commercial operation, can emit upwards of 10 tons or more of hazardous air pollutants annually. Remarkably, the plant is located near the center of town, just a couple blocks off Main Street, less than 500 feet from a residential neighborhood, and a mere mile from two elementary schools. Really, is this the place to construct any power plant, whether coal or natural gas?

This leads us back to the Governor’s plan for Xcel.  As we move toward August and the hopeful release of Xcel’s implementation plan, what is of great interest to those concerned about public health and environmental justice is the future of Xcel’s Cherokee plant.  Nearly 50 years old, Cherokee lies a mile north of the Denver residential neighborhood of Globeville and one-half mile west of Commerce City.  The people who live in the shadow of this plant are impacted from numerous pollution sources in the area, and arguably live with greater public health risks than others in Colorado.

The reality is that nothing short of retiring the Cherokee plant would do these neighborhoods justice.  Even a conversion to natural gas will mean that the plant will continue to emit millions of pounds of air pollution each year. According to the Energy Justice Network (www.energyjustice.net), “a single 1,000 MW gas plant can legally release over 3 million pounds of regulated air pollutants a year, including 40 pounds of lead, 28 pounds of mercury and over 33,000 pounds of other hazardous air pollutants, many of which cause cancer.”  Indeed, faced with the prospect of a new 943-megawatt natural gas plant in their neighborhood, residents of the City of Vernon, California last year mobilized and defeated a project that would have emitted over 1.7 million pounds of toxic pollution per year, as well as 2.8 million tons of greenhouse gases, into their lives.

Undoubtedly, CPDHE and other state public health leaders will counter that they have no legal authority to address the location of a power plant or any other emitter.  In their view, if an emitter prepares the proper forms, installs the proper equipment, and pays the proper fees, then the emitter is entitled to a permit. In theory, this is true. But the state also carries a mighty big stick in its ability to increase the pollution control obligations on the emitter and to lower the legally allowable levels of pollutants from any source.  Isn’t it time for the state to consider whether certain emitters proposing to construct near or in populated neighborhoods be required to demonstrate that its emissions will be at completely “safe” levels?  Only then will emitters be encouraged to reflect upon the people’s entitlement to healthy, livable neighborhoods.

Michael Harris is Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  He has worked as a Senior Deputy District Counsel for the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles, as an Associate Environmental Counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as a Project Attorney with Earthjustice.  He can be reached at elc@law.du.edu.