EPA and State Regulators Slash Plan to Limit Coal Pollution in Utah
Latest business-as-usual plan by EPA and Utah officials fails to limit haze-causing emissions
OCT. 28, 2020, SALT LAKE CITY, UT – Four years after EPA approved a common-sense plan that promised to dramatically cut pollution from Utah’s dirtiest coal-burning power plants, state and federal officials instead have now opted to replace it with a regressive plan that will have no effect on cleaning up the state’s air, especially at the national parks that are such an important part of Utah’s economy.
Despite having some of the most pressing air quality problems in the country, Utah has been dragging its feet on plans to limit regional haze pollution – becoming one of the last states to finalize plans that should have gone into effect two years ago. Regional haze is formed largely as a result of pollution from burning coal to generate electricity. The new plan, signed on October 26, 2020 by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, gives local utility Rocky Mountain Power credit for previous retirements of uneconomic coal units, amounting to a free pass for the utility’s Hunter and Huntington coal plants to continue emitting haze-causing, health-harming pollution.
“It’s frustrating to have the answer right in front of us and then have politics overshadow the science,” said Kirstin Peterson, Moab resident and owner of Rim Tours, a small local business. “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.”
This is the third iteration of Utah’s Regional Haze State Implementation Plan (“Regional Haze SIP”), which should have been finalized years ago, as it was in other states that are now reaping the air quality benefits of tackling coal-related emissions with requirements for state-of-the-art pollution controls and retiring aging plants. In 2016, the EPA actually finalized a regional haze plan for Utah that would have required pollution controls for the Hunter and Huntington coal-fired plants in central Utah, both owned and operated by Rocky Mountain Power, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett-owned PacifiCorp. That plan would have reduced nitrogen oxide pollution from Hunter and Huntington by nearly 75 percent.
Under the Trump Administration in 2017, the EPA walked back their decision and invited the state to resubmit their plan again. State and federal officials have spent the last three years coming up with a rationale to uphold an industry-friendly plan that mirrors earlier versions from the state that allows pollution from coal plants to continue unabated.
According to a recent analysis by the National Parks Conservation Association, the Hunter and Huntington plants are two of the worst in the country in terms of their haze pollution. The Hunter plant ranks No. 2 on the list of all pollution sources in the nation – not just coal plants. Pollution from this facility impairs air quality not only in Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef national parks in Utah but parks in neighboring states as well, including Grand Canyon in Arizona and Mesa Verde in Colorado. The Huntington plant ranks No. 18.
“Our national parks are powerful places that unite and inspire us,” said Cory MacNulty, Southwest Associate Director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We must tap into that power to build common ground and take action to combat air pollution. And we need leaders with a bold vision, who can see past the politics and industry pressure to come up with a real plan that steers us toward clean energy resources. We will continue to fight until Utahns and our national parks have the clean air they need and deserve.”
National Park Service lands are a centerpiece of the state’s economy. In 2019, they attracted more than 15 million visitors, generating nearly $1.9 billion for the state’s economy, which supported an estimated 18,900 jobs.
“We need to focus on stimulating job sectors that anticipate the future rather than perpetuate the past, including a focus on building thriving communities for those who will bear the burden of transitioning away from fossil fuels,” said Dr. Scott Williams, Executive Director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. “Smart communities all across the West began moving away from fossil fuels and building new, thriving economies by diversifying and investing in clean energy, outdoor recreation, and long-term, sustainable job prospects even before COVID hit. 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.”
“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,” said Jonny Vasic, Executive Director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.