Four years after the Environmental Protection Agency approved a federal plan to cut haze-causing emissions from two PacifiCorp coal plants in Utah, the agency instead replaced it with a state plan that doesn't require use of stricter controls for nitrogen oxides emissions.
In addition to health issues from emissions, haze from the plants degrades scenic views in the vicinity of national parks and other protected scenic areas.
The earlier plan, approved in 2016, would have required use of the costly selective catalytic reduction technology at both plants as a best available retrofit technology measure to control the emissions. PacifiCorp has estimated that could cost it upwards of $700 million (CU No. 1751 ).
The new plan, signed Oct. 26 by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and termed the BART Alternative Plan, gives the utility credit for the previous retirement of its uneconomic coal-fired Carbon Power Plant, also in Utah, and allows the Hunter and Huntington coal plants to continue with their current emission controls.
The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign had supported the earlier federal plan, and opposed EPA's efforts to use the state's plan, a change that started in 2017 under the Trump administration.
Jeff Shaw, deputy communications director for the campaign, told Clearing Up his group is considering next steps, but noted EPA's action could be reversed under the incoming Biden administration.
EPA said in an Oct. 26 press release that Utah's plan is "based on technical information that was not available to the EPA in 2016, including a new modeling analysis that indicates the plan will achieve greater visibility than the federal plan."
On an annual basis, the agency said, the Utah plan would lower sulfur dioxide emissions by 5,814 tons and fine particulate matter pollution by 303 tons, but increase NOx by 4,238 tons. Overall, though, "the Utah plan drops emissions by 1,800 tons more than the federal plan proposed to do," EPA said.
The overall estimated emissions drop reflects contributions from the closed Carbon plant and from Hunter Unit 3, which was built after the 1962-1977 window for being subject to the federal BART requirement.
Under the new plan, Utah gets credits for existing NOx emissions control systems on units 1 and 2 of PacifiCorp's Hunter and Huntington plants—PacifiCorp has invested about $500 million in low NOx burners, scrubbers and baghouses at Huntington and Hunter plants—as well as reductions in sulfur dioxide, NOx and PM from the 2015 closure of the Carbon power plant and from measures taken at Hunter 3.
In the final order, EPA said the state's plan, while increasing NOx emissions, "will achieve greater reasonable progress through combined NOx, SO2, and PM reductions and therefore results in a stronger regional haze requirement than the existing plan."
This conclusion is based on findings from "state-of-the-art" modeling that the state plan "makes better progress toward visibility improvement and at lower costs to utility customers."
In particular, the modeling supports a finding that SO2 emissions have a greater impact on visibility because of the air chemistry in the region, so that reductions in these yield better progress toward natural visibility than reductions in NOx.
In addition, the regional haze rule is a phased process with the goal of achieving "natural conditions" of visibility by 2064. Utah's BART Alternative applies to the first planning period, and there will be others before the units retire, where additional NOx reductions may be required.
Opponents of EPA's about-face criticized the plan's approval, and said it doesn't do enough to reduce emissions, which could have health and economic consequences for the state.
"The only thing that Utah's new haze plan does is ensure that we're going to continue having polluted skies that mar Utah's tremendous landscapes and harm the health of visitors, wildlife, resources and our outdoor recreation economy," said Kirstin Peterson in a statement from an environmental coalition that includes the Sierra Club. Peterson is a Moab resident and owner of Rim Tours, a small local business.
Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment, another coalition member, said in the statement, "The science is clear, even low levels of air pollution can have hazardous health consequences. It's unfortunate that poor public policy from the state forces us to tolerate air pollution in our parks that sometimes is as high as in the urban areas of the Wasatch Front. That pollution undermines our enjoyment of the parks and the health benefits they provide."
Health Environment Alliance of Utah criticized the EPA action as regressive. "Under the current circumstance, we cannot afford a rear-view mirror approach that puts a dying coal industry ahead of a vibrant outdoor recreation economy that Utah has built," said Executive Director Dr. Scott Williams.
Currently, the Hunter and Huntington plants will reach the end of their useful lives in 2042 and 2036, respectively, according to PacifiCorp's 2019 integrated resource plan. However, they will exit the rate base in Oregon by the end of 2029 and in Washington by the end of 2025 due to recent climate legislation in those states, which would likely shift the burden of costs for these plants to the utility's customers in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.
Bob Jenks, executive director of Oregon Citizens' Utility Board, told Clearing Up the Utah plan could be costly for customers of those states.
"It is not a good bet to invest in coal long-term going forward with the change of [presidential] administrations," he said.
Hunter units 1, 2 and 3 are rated at 418 MW, 269 MW and 471 MW, respectively, with PacifiCorp ownership shares of 94, 60 and 100 percent.
Huntington units 1 and 2, which are wholly owned by PacifiCorp, are rated at 459 MW and 450 MW, respectively.