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“Emissions from this dirty, outdated coal plant have obscured priceless views in our national parks in a brown haze for years,” said Stephanie Kodish, Clean Air Counsel for NPCA.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?