Environmental Groups Ask Feds to Require Reduced Pollution from Four Corners Power Plant

Haze at Grand Canyon.

This photo reconstructs the best and worst 24-hour average visibility based on particle concentrations sampled at Indian Garden in Grand Canyon National Park. The Four Corners Power Plant is only one source of the problem. NPS image.

The Four Corners—the point on the Colorado Plateau where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado meet—is home to some of the country's oldest national parks…and to a long-running dispute between environmental groups and power plant operators.

The effects of coal-fired power plants on national parks and residents of the region have been a point of contention for years. A coalition of groups has now asked federal agencies to require measures to reduce pollution from one of the major energy producers in the region: the Four Corners Power Plant. On February 18, the groups

petitioned the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture to declare that the pollution from the Arizona Public Service Company’s Four Corners Power Plant on Navajo land in northwest New Mexico is violating the Clean Air Act by causing poor visibility in protected areas in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.

Organizations filing the petition included The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Earthjustice, Sierra Club, San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, Dooda Desert Rock, Diné CARE, WildEarth Guardians, and the Grand Canyon Trust.

“Emissions from this dirty, outdated coal plant have obscured priceless views in our national parks in a brown haze for years,” said Stephanie Kodish, Clean Air Counsel for NPCA. “It's time for EPA to take action to protect our residents’ health and our cultural and scenic treasures."

The proximity of the plant to a number of NPS sites has led to decades of calls for action by various groups. According to the NPCA,

Because Four Corners is within 300 kilometers of sixteen Class I national parks and wilderness areas, much of this pollution degrades their beauty. In fact, the National Park Service has found that Four Corners has the greatest visibility impact on Class I national parks of any coal plant in the country. Places with world-recognized cultural and natural value, including Mesa Verde, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks are among those most affected by Four Corners’ pollution.

Four Corners is the largest single source of air pollution in the state of New Mexico, according the Arizona Public Service's monitoring reports. Every year Four Corners’ five generating units burn over ten million tons of coal, and discharge into the air of the Colorado Plateau approximately 42,000 tons of nitrogen oxides,12,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 1,300 tons of particulate matter. These pollutants are the major components of haze.

Air modeling done for the Arizona Public Service Company has found that the plant's air pollution reduces visibility by 25 times the amount defined as causing impairment by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Air Act states that Class I areas deserve the highest level of protection, and should be free from man-made haze.
The plant has long been implicated in reduced visibility at sites such as Grand Canyon National Park.

The plant impacts a number of major parks and area residents.

“When the wind is blowing pollution from the Four Corners plant to Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon or Grand Canyon National Parks, visibility is seriously impaired,” said Roger Clark, air and energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust. “Only when the wind is coming from another direction is the clarity of the landscape anything like what it used to be. The number of days when views in these parks is clouded by pollution seems to be ever- increasing.”

“Not only is the pollution hurting national parks, but the Four Corners Region, which is home to several indigenous tribes,” said Anna Frazier, Diné CARE Coordinator, who lives on the Navajo reservation. “Their health and way of life are impacted by deadly chemicals from pollution.”

This isn't the first time these issues have been raised, but the plant has a lot of economic clout in the area. According the New Mexico utility company PNM

Four Corners Power Plant is one of the largest coal-fired generating stations in the United States. The plant is located on Navajo land … about 25 miles west of Farmington, New Mexico.

It was the first mine-mouth generation station to take advantage of the large deposits of sub-bituminous coal in the Four Corners region. The plant’s five units generate 2,040 megawatts. The first unit went online in 1963.

The plant, operated by Arizona Public Service (APS) Company, is owned by APS and five other utility companies. It provides power to about 300,000 households in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Texas.

The Four Corners Plant is also a big employer on the Navajo Reservation, and operators and Navajo Nation officials have often pointed to economic benefits of the Four Corners—and other power plants—to their area.

Utility companies often cite the costs of better pollution controls, and the specter of higher consumer electric bills plays well in the press. The added cost card is sometimes overplayed, but the tactic has been a popular one. Even back in 1980, the amount of such increases cited by operators of the Four Corners Plant was questioned in a study published by in the American Journal of Public Health.

Has there been progress on reducing pollution from the plant? The operators say so, and in 2006, "The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency … announced significant reductions of sulfur dioxide emissions from the Four Corners Power Plant."

Air quality woes in the region aren't limited to the Four Corners Plant; other contributors to the problem include the Navajo, Mohave, San Juan, and Springerville Generating Stations, and some progress has been made at those locations.

Conservation groups and other local activists say there's still much to be done, and this dispute has lingered for years.

Will the current administration be more sympathetic to arguments on behalf of better air quality—or will economic worries once again trump environmental concerns?

Comments

What we are seeing now is nothing compared to what used to be emitted by Four Corners. I was chief of Interpretation and Resource Management at Wupatki / Sunset Crater back in 1975 or thereabouts when Four Corners was first fired up. Our view across the Little Colorado Valley toward the Hopi Mesas dropped from probably 100+ miles to almost nothing in just weeks. It was incredible.

At that time, there were no requirements for scrubbers or filters or whatever to remove enormous amounts of fly ash from the stacks' smoke. This was, I think, pre-Clean Air Act.

On one occasion I needed to attend a meeting at our Navajo Lands Group office in Farmington, N.M. which is just east and downwind from 4C. Rather than drive, I took the opportunity to fly myself up from Flagstaff to Farmington. It was an incredibly blue and clear day -- CAVU, pilots say for Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited. But as soon as I climbed to cruise out of Flag and headed north, I could see a reddish cloud extending as far east as prevailing winds were carrying the gook. When I neared Farmington, I discovered that the airport there was actually far below minimums for me to make a visual approach and since I was not instrument rated, I had no choice but to fly on to Cortez, Colorado and rent a car to return to Farmington.

People living in Farmington were constantly finding their homes, cars, children, pets, laundry, lungs and everything else covered by a constant dusting of red. It looked a lot like the stuff that used to settle south of Cleveland and Erie and Chicago and Pittsburgh in the heyday of the big steel mills. (When I was a young pilot still in high school in 1958 or so, I followed a similar red plume south from near Lake Erie to the Kentucky / Tennessee border. It was still going when I had to turn around.) NASA satellites actually photographed the 4C plume from space.

Although the Clean Air Act causes visible material to be removed, it has done little to regulate the invisible stuff that produces those photochemical smogs we live with in Utah's Wasatch Front area --- and in the Grand Canyon and so many other places.

Pitiful, isn't it?

I drove to Shiprock the day before yesterday and the two power plants as the source of junk in the air were obvious. I work with Navajos who suffer respiratory ailments because of the two plants and while Dooda Desert Rock has demanded to know what Region 9 EPA is going to do about its own study that pinpoints the dangers to Navajo health, it is doing nothing. While the haze also hampers tourism to the Shiprock, health is being ignored.

I live in Saint George Utah and the effects of those coal plants even reach here
I have many lung problems and when the air is bad I can feel it. I kept wpndering what the smog was coming from the south of St. George.
And then when I got on public parks I found my answer. We need help in cleaning this air up quickly. Dot

I live in the McElmo area near Cortez and the amount of pollution and smog here "when the wind is right" is unbelievable. Most of the Native Americans on the reservations do not profit from these plants and do not want them there. I never had respiratory distress until I moved here. I had no idea it was so bad.

I am interested in knowing what I can do to stop this. I have the feeling that the EPA and other agencies could care less. Seems their answer is to wait for the wind to change.

Thanks for your efforts and know that the people here support your cause.

I know several good friends who work for APS and I know some people that work at 4c they say the paint lifts off your car after parking it there for a few years. I'm guessing it is some sort of acid that falls when it rains or something who knows. I once had an offer to work there, but turned it down I would never work there. Coal dust is on everything coating everything in a matter of days. I have no idea what that does to your lungs, and I have asked but they just shrug there shoulders and say don't know. I hear from on the grape vine that APS is going to sell off it's interest in 4C because of the cost of the upgrades to clean it up. Nuke power is the way to go lot less damaging. Solar is good but it just can't replace the power produced by coal. Nuke can replace it.