Utility found guilty of polluting a wilderness

  • Aerial view of the Hayden power plant

    Dennis Haddow/U.S. Forest Service

Tourists noticed it first. A thin brown haze hung in the air like a nylon stocking obscuring the view of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area in northwest Colorado.

Alerted by complaints, the Forest Service set up cameras at the Storm Peak Weather Lab on top of the Steamboat ski area. The cameras took pictures three times a day and later confirmed what tourists already knew - something was wrong. The year was 1985.

Scientists got busy. They guessed that the snow on Mount Zirkel might help them find the source of the pollution. Snow pits were dug, platforms erected and snow samples shipped to labs around the country. The results were startling: The seemingly pristine 140,000-acre Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area had the most acidic snow ever recorded west of the Mississippi.

The center of the controversy became the coal-fired Hayden Power Plant, 25 miles southwest of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Researchers say the plant emits sulfates, which cause the acid snow. Built 30 years ago, before stringent pollution controls were in effect, the power plant is part of a network that serves 1 million customers. Surrounded by golden hay fields and adjacent to the Yampa Valley regional airport, the Hayden plant operates 24 hours a day and provides some of the best-paying jobs in the county.

It is also one of the most profitable plants in the nation.

But the operator and 50 percent owner of the power plant, the Public Service Company of Colorado, suffered a serious setback in July when U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Babcock ruled that the Hayden power plant had violated national air pollution laws more than 19,000 times in five years. The lawsuit, filed by the Sierra Club, revealed that the utility's environmental records showed massive violations of the federal Clean Air Act.

According to an automatic sensing device called a transmisometer, the plant exceeded federal opacity levels over and over again. Each violation carries a maximum penalty of $25,000, which means the company could face up to $475 million in penalties.

Public Service, whose appeal of the decision was recently rejected, says opacity can only be accurately measured by the trained eye of a certified smoke reader, not by the expensive machine they have installed at the plant. However, Dennis Haddow, U.S. Forest Service air program manager, says, "Public Service should have to comply all the time, not just when a smoke reader happens by."

To be certified as a smoke reader, the Colorado Department of Health requires a half-day attendance at a school. Classes are held in a field outside Denver where students watch a plume of smoke and try to estimate the relative opacity (0 = clear; 100 percent = opaque). There is an instructor, but there are no books, materials or hand-outs.

Ironically, smoke reader trainees are graded by how their opacity estimates compare to the transmisometer device. "Class is a generous term for this," says Sierra Club attorney Reed Zars. "They run the test until everyone passes. And you can miss a fair amount and still pass."

Because of the ruling, the transmisometer will likely replace the human eye to determine violations, arming citizens with better data to fight pollution, says Zars.

Now, with Public Service Company's liability established, the Sierra Club will request an injunction requiring the company to install baghouses (resembling giant vacuum cleaner bags) to trap particulates. Scrubbers, to get rid of sulphur and nitrogen pollution, "are not off the table," Zars says.

The injunction trial is slated for May 20, but, says Zars, "We're pushing for a much earlier date."

For more information, call Joan Hoffman of the Sierra Club, 970/879-2021; or Dennis Haddow, U.S. Forest Service air program manager, 303/275-5743. Public Service Company's public relations office is at 303/294-8212.

The writer works in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

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