Plant cleans up its act: SJ station takes 'leadership' role

A third Four Corners power plant is taking what it hopes will be a pioneering role for the region. Courtesy of a landmark agreement last March, more than $200 million in pollution-control measures will be implemented at the San Juan Generating Station, one of the dirtiest coal-fired plants in the region and nation. Of particular note is the plant’s push to eliminate hazardous mercury emissions, the first effort of its kind in the country.

Operated by Public Service Co. of New Mexico (PNM), the San Juan power plant is a 1,600-megawatt, coal-fired facility near Farmington with a shady track record when it comes to emissions. In 2003, the station spewed more than 14,500 tons of sulfur dioxide, 25,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 750 pounds of mercury into local air.

These volumes, along with flagrant violations, led to legal action. The Grand Canyon Trust and Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in 2002 alleging that PNM was violating its air quality permit at San Juan. One of the key charges was that the plant was regularly well over its opacity limit (the density of toxins in the plume coming out of the plant’s smokestacks).

In February of last year, Federal Judge Bruce Black concurred, and eventually, PNM agreed that it had violated the opacity limit at the plant a total of 42,008 times. Now, the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and PNM have successfully negotiated a settlement, and as a result, thousands of tons of air pollution, linked with local health problems and haze, will no longer be dumped into the Four Corners’ skies.

Beginning in 2006, the San Juan Generating Station will install: equipment to reduce sulfur dioxide by several thousand tons; state-of-the-art “burners” to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 10,000 tons; giant vacuum bags called “baghouses;” and activated carbon pollution-control equipment to reduce mercury by as much as 80 percent.

Amy Miller, spokeswoman for PNM, said that with the agreement in place, San Juan Generating Station hopes to lead the way for other coal-fired plants in the region. “We made a decision last fall that we needed to not only settle that lawsuit, but to take things well above where they are now. Regardless of litigation, we’ve decided to take a leadership role for the region.”

– Will Sands

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