Power plant cleanup

EPA’s final rule is not a perfect solution, but it is a good step in the right direction

The Four Corners Power Plant, on the Navajo Nation just outside Farmington, is a notorious polluter. The coal-fired facility is among the oldest and dirtiest power plants in the country and has contributed no small amount of toxic soup to the region’s airshed. This has caused a range of environmental and public-health problems for those living in the region, and to address one of them – visibility – the Environmental Protection Agency has finalized a rule that will lessen the facility’s impact. It is a good move, but the larger problem remains.

The EPA is requiring the power plant to clean up its nitrogen-oxide emissions that reduce visibility in nearby Class I airsheds including Mesa Verde National Park and the Weminuche Wilderness. This process will involve one of two options – either reducing emissions facilitywide through improved technology or shuttering three of the plant’s power-generating units and installing pollution-reduction technology on the remaining two units. These strategies will drop the facility’s nitrogen-oxide emissions by 80 percent to 87 percent. That is a significant improvement that will have far-reaching effects for air and water quality as well as public health across the region.

It is not, however, a perfect solution, but finding one is no easy undertaking. Ideally, the plant would be fully decommissioned and replaced with a pollution-free alternative-energy facility that can generate as much power as Four Corners Power Plant does now, moving the region and the nation away from its reliance on coal as its primary source of electricity. However, the political, economic and technological will to make this move is simply not sufficiently developed so as to make it a feasible alternative to the status quo. That does not mean efforts to build capital and push for such a transition is misguided – they should continue and intensify so that there is an eventual shift

In the meantime, though, rules such as that announced by the EPA this week are essential steps in addressing the problems that make finding an alternative to coal so important for so many reasons. That the negative impacts of burning coal extend well beyond the place where it is burned is at the top of this list. Because nitrogen oxide travels far afield of its source, neighboring communities have as much at stake as those who live in the shadow of any coal-burning facility’s stacks. For Southwest Colorado, where tourism to the region’s many natural features is an important part of the economy, the stakes for clean air are quite high. As such, citizens and policymakers in this community should be as concerned as those in New Mexico about how much pollution nearby facilities emit. The Durango City Council and Sen. Michael Bennet are among those who are. Others should be equally concerned.

With its final rule, the EPA has done much to address the worst of what the Four Corners Power Plant brings to the region’s skies. It is not perfect, but it is a step worth commending.