Aging coal plants are responsible for poor air and health impacts nationwide, and landmark EPA decision today sends message that they must be cleaned up
FARMINGTON, N.M. – One of the oldest and dirtiest coal-burning power plants in the West will soon emit less pollution, resulting in better air quality and improved public health in the Four Corners region, following a final decision announced today by EPA that will require modern pollution controls on the San Juan Generating Station.
As a result of the EPA action, harmful nitrogen oxide pollution from the nearly 40-year-old San Juan plant near Farmington, N.M. will be cut significantly. Nitrogen oxide reacts with other compounds to form small particles that penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs. It is also a raw ingredient in ground-level ozone, which the American Lung Association calls “the most widespread pollutant in the U.S. [and] one of the most dangerous.” Ozone leads to asthma attacks, respiratory problems, lung damage, and even premature death.
The EPA decision to limit nitrogen oxide emissions from all four boilers at the San Juan plant to .05 lb/MMBtu will likely require selective catalytic reduction (SCR) pollution controls and will reduce the coal plant’s current nitrogen oxide pollution by 80 percent. It’s the first federal plan in the country that will require adequate pollution controls to limit nitrogen oxide emissions under Clean Air Act provisions to reduce regional haze. There are decades-old plants with major pollution problems in more than 40 other states that will face similar decisions on pollution upgrades in the coming year or two, making the limits required for San Juan a possible bellwether of what’s to come elsewhere and on the possible pace of transition to cleaner energy options given the cost of updating old, dirty coal plants.
For decades, nitrogen emissions from coal-burning power plants have been a major source of haze in the Four Corners region, clouding the air and views in economically important national parks. Premature deaths, asthma attacks, heart attacks, chronic bronchitis, and hospital visits from San Juan Generating Station’s pollution have cost an estimated $255 million a year.
“Pollution from this plant has been hurting our communities for generations,” said Donna House with Diné CARE, a volunteer-driven conservation organization on the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region. “Cutting coal pollution is a must, and moving to a cleaner energy than coal is the real answer.”
San Juan Generating Station currently dumps nearly 16,000 tons of nitrogen oxide into the air each year, making it the ninth worst polluter out of more than 40 coal plants in Western states. Together with the nearby 48-year-old Four Corners Power Plant (worst in the west for nitrogen oxide), the two coal-burning plants’ combined emissions account for at least two-thirds of total nitrogen oxide pollution in San Juan County where they’re located and a quarter of all nitrogen oxide emissions statewide in New Mexico. The American Lung Association has given San Juan County an “F” grade for ozone pollution due to the number of days each year that it surpasses levels of ozone concentrations that the ALA considers unhealthy.
“Over the years, we’ve seen more and more children and adults coming in with asthma and respiratory problems, especially from the areas affected by the coal plant emissions,” said Adella Begaye, a nurse with 20 years of experience on the Navajo Nation. “Big polluters such as the San Juan and Four Corners coal plants have to be held responsible for the health costs they cause.”
The state and San Juan Generating Station owner PNM had lobbied for far less effective pollution controls which would have cut nitrogen oxide emissions by just 20 percent.
Other plants in the Southwest that will face pollution-control improvements include the 38-year-old Navajo Generating Station in Arizona (fourth worst among western state coal plants for nitrogen oxide pollution), Four Corners, and the 46-year-old Reid Gardner Station near Las Vegas. Long overdue deadlines are being set now for decisions on pollution-control upgrades at more than 70 aging coal-burning plants around the country.
EPA’s decision comes as part of the efforts to finally enforce Clean Air Act requirements to reduce the regional haze that clouds views in more than 150 national parks and wilderness areas. According to a Clean Air Task Force report, San Juan Generating Station is responsible for more than 80 percent of the air pollution at Mesa Verde National Park, just across the border in Colorado. It also contributes to air pollution at the Grand Canyon and many other nationally protected landscapes. Parks in the region support thousands of jobs and the millions of people who visit them each year contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to local economies.
EPA stepped in as a result of the absence of an adequate state plan to reduce pollution at San Juan Generating Station. EPA’s decision to require an 80 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide pollution at the plant is broadly supported by other federal agencies, including the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as public health, environmental, tribal, and other community organizations regionally and nationally. These include San Juan Citizens Alliance, Diné CARE, WildEarth Guardians, National Parks Conservation Association, Earthjustice, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and others.