Power Plant Pollution Serves as Example of Air Quality's Real Priority

by Duane Craig of Contaminated Nation

In what may only be called an amazing yet puzzling development, the nation’s largest source of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions is about to be muzzled, using a 54-year old technology.

The Four Corners Power Plant has five electrical generation units turning out more than 2,000 megawatts of power, and has been doing so since 1970. It also has been churning out 45,000 tons of nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide (SO2), almost 1,500 pounds of mercury, and particulate matter each year. According to one source, the power plant costs an estimated $341 million annually from its contributions to premature deaths, asthma attacks and emergency room visits. The power plant is also being blamed for fouling the air at national parks across the western states.

Now, a range of stakeholders are on the verge of agreeing to a plan that will reduce emissions by 87 percent, however it could still be years before that goal is realized even though it depends upon a technology that has been used on coal power plants since the early 90s. That technology is selective catalytic reduction (SCR) and besides being used on coal-fired power plants it is also widely used on vehicles, especially diesel-fueled trucks. Some people may wonder why it has taken so long to outfit the plant with air cleaning technology that has been around for so long, and has been successfully used at coal plants for more than a decade.

Of course there are no easy answers because as usual, air quality has not been the highest priority. Other priorities have included sovereignty issues. The plant sits on Navajo land and as a sovereign nation it is not necessarily bound by the same rules and regulations as the states. For years the plant complied with New Mexico’s State Implementation Plan but then a Tribal Authority Rule from the Environmental Protection Agency exempted tribes from following any state air quality regulations. Following that, the law apparently then allowed the EPA to mandate emissions limitations for the plant.

Following the money, it’s important to note the tribe derives a sizable income from the coal companies that supply coal to the power plant and the 1,000 plus jobs the plant provides largely to Navajo workers.
Then there are points of contention highlighted by the Navajo leadership revolving around whether the plant is actually creating all the pollution itself. Some tribal leaders claim other industrial operations and another power plant regulated by New Mexico also have NOx legacies contributing to the sour environmental record of the area. Tribal leaders say those other facilities should also be required to clean up their acts.

The whole issue is now in a public comment period. Even if the final plan is approved the operators of the plant will still have another five years from the publication date of the final rule to pollute the air before having to install a well-known technology that could reduce the emissions immediately by 87 percent.


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