Utah utility takes aim at Colorado air

  • Deseret Generation and Transmission Cooperative power plant in Bonanza, Utah

    Deseret Generation and Transmission Cooperative

The U.S. Forest Service determined last summer that air pollution was reducing visibility and increasing degradation from acid rain in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area in northern Colorado's Routt National Forest.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Colorado forest officials, environmentalists and air-quality managers - not to mention the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service - are irked about a Utah power plant's recent request to quadruple its sulfur-dioxide (SO2) emissions.

The Utah Air Quality Board has already given preliminary approval to the increase in emissions, most of which would blow into Colorado.

The Deseret Generation and Transmission Cooperative wants to increase SO2 emissions from 700 tons per year to 3,000 tons per year at its coal-fired power plant in Bonanza, Uintah County, near the Colorado border, about 25 miles south of Dinosaur National Monument.

At 400 megawatts, the power plant cooperative serves rural customers in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona.

Deseret spokesman Ken Fisher said the increased emissions permit is necessary because the 400-megawatt power plant's supply of low-sulfur coal is nearly exhausted.

But environmentalists say they don't want an increase in air pollution.

"The proposed ... increase in SO2 emissions at the Bonanza plant is highly likely to exacerbate visibility degradation and acid (rain) problems in national parks and wilderness areas in Utah and Colorado," said Christine Shaver, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, which is representing the Sierra Club and the National Parks and Conservation Association in fighting the emissions increases.

At EDF's request, Utah has extended the public comment period to May 23. A public hearing will also be held sometime before May 23.

In that hearing, state officials are sure to get an earful.

Terri Martin, regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association, said her group is concerned that air quality would be harmed in Dinosaur National Monument and Arches National Park.

She also warned that it would be somewhat hypocritical for Utah to allow Bonanza to increase its emissions.

"This is a time when Utah should be part of that Grand Canyon Transport Commission to protect the far-reaching vistas of the Colorado Plateau," Martin said. "It's clear the kind of recommendation that Utah makes to that process will include controlling emissions that are upwind from us, like in California. To ask those states to be good neighbors, we need to be a good neighbor to states that are downwind to us."

In a letter to the Utah Division of Air Quality, the Forest Service noted the acid-rain problem in Mount Zirkel and urged caution.

But Deseret's Fisher said his company has studied the proposed increases in SO2 and found no adverse impact in the national parks or in Colorado. He said Colorado-based power plants "are putting out 10 times as much SO2 than we are ... (Environmentalists) need to turn their attention to those units in Colorado rather than an imaginary problem in Utah."

Indeed, two power plants in northwestern Colorado emit 3,000 to 4,000 tons of SO2 each, said Tom Getz, director of the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division in Denver.

Nevertheless, Getz said he is concerned about the Bonanza plant and its possible impact on Mount Zirkel. His office and the Region 8 office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are analyzing the proposed SO2 increases.

When Bonanza got its permit in 1981, it was required to meet more stringent requirements under the Carter administration. It has been relatively easy for Bonanza to meet those requirements because it burns a low-sulfur coal mined in Rangely, Colo. That mine, however, has depleted its supplies of the low-sulfur coal. The higher-sulfur coal will make it impossible for Bonanza to stay within its permit at present capacity, said Fisher.

"The only way we could meet the requirements under the existing permit would be to reduce capacity of the plant by at least one-third," Fisher said. The Deseret cooperative, which had to restructure its debt two years ago, could not withstand such a cutback in generating output, he said.

"For our economic well-being, we feel we've got to have this revised permit."

Although Bonanza is asking for relaxed standards in its permit, the standards will be no lower than any other power plants currently operating in the West, Fisher said.

"The other power plants have always operated under these standards (that Deseret is requesting)," Fisher said. "So we're not asking for something that is not standard for other coal-fired operators."

The writer works in Salt Lake City, Utah.

To comment on the increased emissions proposal at the Bonanza power plant, write to Russell Roberts, executive director, Utah Division of Air Quality, 150 N. 1950 West, Salt Lake City, UT 84114-4820. Comments are due by May 23. For more information, write to the Environmental Defense Fund, 1405 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, CO 80302, or DG&T, 8722 S. 300 West, Sandy, UT 84070.

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