Clouding the issue
San Juan Generating Station works to stall upgrades

by Will Sands

Efforts to green several of the smokestacks south of Durango have stalled. PNM, New Mexico’s largest electricity supplier, is dragging its feet on cutting emissions from the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. The utility recently won a three-month reprieve from the public process and is arguing that clean air upgrades will be too big a burden for New Mexico residents.

Early this summer, the New Mexico Environment Department started turning up the heat on the San Juan Generating Station. The 1,800-megawatt power plant burns close to 10 million pounds of coal every year; ranks as New Mexico’s single biggest source of CO2 emissions; and is a leading contributor to haze in the Four Corners. PNM owns a 47 percent share and is the sole operator of the notorious power plant.

“Regional haze is a huge issue in the Four Corners largely because of economic impacts,” said Mike Eisenfeld, of the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “We have people visiting the San Juan Basin and literally being disgusted by the state of local air quality. It’s frankly embarrassing, and it’s hitting the region in the pocketbook.”

A federal rule on the books since 1999 mandates that power plants in the vicinity of national parks and wilderness areas reduce emissions that cause visible haze. And according to the environment department, the air quality in 16 separate parks and wilderness areas – Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands and the Weminuche Wilderness among them – is impacted by the San Juan Generating Station. In response, the department filed a petition that would require PNM to play by the rules. If successful, the petition would see that technology is installed at the plant to cut emissions of nitrogen oxide, the pollutant responsible for haze. A similar rulemaking is under way at the neighboring Four Corners Power Plant, which is on Navajo Nation land and operated by the Arizona Public Service Co.

However, the moment the petition was filed, PNM cried foul. The major utility alleged that upgrades to the San Juan Generating Station would ring in at $1 billion and that cost would have to be passed on. PNM alleged that each of its 500,000 electric customers would have to cough up approximately $90 more per year for up to 20 years to offset the expense. Given the expense of the upgrades, the company requested a delay in the rule-making from Oct. 4 until after January of next year.

“Any proposal with this type of cost impact deserves ample time for review and consideration. Our proposed extension would provide that additional time,” said Pat Vincent-Collawn, president and CEO of PNM.

What Vincent-Collawn did not mention is that the extension would shift the public process into a timeframe after Gov. Bill Richardson – a man who has been cavalier about air quality and environmental issues – has left office. In addition, the company is already alleging that the upgrades are not necessary, saying the problem was remedied with its recently completed $320 million environmental upgrade that reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by approximately 33 percent. But another fact Vincent-Collawn neglected to mention was that the upgrades were the result of a lawsuit that revealed 42,000 separate Clean Air Act violations at the plant. The upgrade took place only after PNM was handed a court-ordered pollution-reduction plan.

Given this history, the New Mexico Environment Department isn’t buying PNM’s current rhetoric. “We are disappointed in PNM’s shortsightedness in failing to plan to reduce its emissions in accordance with longstanding federal requirements,” said New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry in a statement. “Now because PNM neglected to plan for a rule that will protect air quality, the company threatens that its customers will have to pay for it.”

Curry added that PNM has deliberately inflated the cost of the improvements to scare customers and sway public sentiment. He also produced documentation that put PNM’s own estimates of the upgrades at $703 million, rather than $1 billion. He added that since PNM is a partial owner of the plant, the company would be responsible for only $330 million of the cost. Lastly, he pointed to PNM modeling that indicates that the new controls would drop nitrogen oxide emissions by 77 percent. According to PNM’s scientists, visibility in at least eight regional parks and wilderness areas would improve dramatically enough that it would be perceptible to the human eye.

However, the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board did not see the issue in the same light. In late August, it granted PNM’s request, moving the hearing into the new year and setting the date for Jan. 10. Whether the San Juan Generating Station will actually have to trim its excess emissions will be determined at some point after that.

“It’s interesting that the company is taking the approach that New Mexicans would be at an economic disadvantage if they have to account for the air pollution they are causing,” Eisenfeld said. “At the moment, PNM seems to be more interested in putting dollars into attorneys fees than actually stepping up and addressing the issue.” •

 

 

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