EPA sets final rules for Navajo power plant

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued its final rule aimed at cleaning the largest single source of haze-causing pollutants in the country.

Rather than mandate that the Four Corners Power Plant take one avenue to reducing nitrogen oxide emissions, the EPA is giving the plant’s operators a choice, regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld told The Associated Press on Wednesday. Arizona Public Service can either upgrade the five units at the northwestern New Mexico plant or go with its own plan to shut down three units and install pollution controls at the two others.

The actions would cut emissions that can worsen visibility at national parks like the Grand Canyon by 80 percent.

“It’s a common-sense approach that will result in a significant decrease in pollution in spectacular parks like Mesa Verde and Canyonlands, which are crucial to the economy of Four Corners,” Blumenfeld said. “And it will improve visibility and clean the air that we breathe.”

APS plans to move forward with the plan to shut down some of the units. The deadline to notify the EPA is July 1. The utility would have about five years to implement the rule that also addresses particulate matter.

The EPA gave notice years ago that it would consider whether the Four Corners power plant and a second one on the Navajo Nation would need upgrades to control nitrogen-oxide emissions. APS then came forward with a proposal in 2010 to seek majority ownership of two units and shutter the plant’s three, more polluting generators. APS would lose 560 megawatts of power from the shutdown but would gain 740 megawatts from Southern California Edison.

APS has received approval from utility regulators in California and Arizona to buy Southern California Edison’s 48 percent share of the two units for $294 million. APS proposed the buyout as a result of the California utility’s decision to terminate its interest in the plant in 2016 to comply with that state’s laws that prevent utility providers from investing in most coal-fired power plants.

Under the APS proposal, it would permanently shutter three units and install $290 million in controls at the newer units that were built in 1969 and 1970. APS spokesman Damon Gross said the Navajo Nation, local economy, the utility’s customers and the environment would benefit from the plan.

“Our proposal also would allow us to continue to provide high-quality jobs in the region while preserving an important source of reliable, affordable energy for the Southwest,” he said.

The power plant provides electricity to about 300,000 households in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

One of the remaining hurdles for APS is securing a fuel agreement from BHP Billiton, which supplies the coal to run the plant.

The EPA’s decision comes days ahead of a series of public meetings on a study of the environmental impacts of the power plant and the coal mine. Environmental groups, including the San Juan Citizens Alliance, had pushed the U.S. Department of Interior to prepare an environmental impact statement.

Mike Eisenfeld, of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said he’s hopeful that document will include alternatives to transitioning the plant from coal to renewable energy. He would like to see an “economic-development scenario that comes forward.”

“Perhaps that’s renewable energy,” he said. “But for us to continue retrofitting a 50-year-old coal plant doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

For the Navajo Nation, the concern is a loss in an estimated $9 million a year in coal royalties that would come by shuttering the three units, said tribal spokesman Erny Zah. APS said it would begin decommissioning the units after it closes on the sale of Southern California Edison’s shares, which is expected later this year.

“We’re ready to take the hit, but it might come a little sooner than we think,” Zah said.