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Clean Air Conundrum 

Utility, enviros wrangle over Bush policy

click to enlarge "The administration is giving a massive gift to the energy companies that contributed heavily to the Bush campaign." - Robin Hubbard - SHERRI VANENGELEN
  • Sherri VanEngelen
  • "The administration is giving a massive gift to the energy companies that contributed heavily to the Bush campaign." - Robin Hubbard

Air pollution and its grim consequences, from asthma attacks to acid rain, could increase in Colorado Springs and elsewhere under regulatory changes to the federal Clean Air Act being pushed by the Bush administration, environmental activists charge.

But officials for Colorado Springs Utilities say it's too soon to sound the alarm bell. It's premature to speculate on what the Clean Air Act changes will look like, officials say. And regardless of the outcome, the community-owned utility plans to reduce air emissions from its power plants.

A nationwide coalition of environmental organizations recently released its own estimates of how much air pollution could increase as a result of Bush's proposed changes, which were announced last month. While the Bush administration claims the changes will simply clarify aspects of the Clean Air Act, the environmentalists say the changes contain a number of loopholes that will allow big polluters to continue polluting even more.

'A massive gift'

"The administration is giving a massive gift to the energy companies that contributed heavily to the Bush campaign," said Robin Hubbard, field director for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, which is a member of the environmental coalition.

According to the coalition, the main change would weaken current rules that require power plants to install new pollution-reducing equipment when they increase their generating capacity. In Colorado alone, that could mean 27,000 tons of additional air pollution each year, the coalition estimates.

In Colorado Springs, allowable emissions of nitrogen oxides -- which cause smog and asthma attacks -- could grow by as much as 24 percent, while emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes lung disease and acid rain, could grow by 2 percent, the coalition figures.

Looking to reduce

The main local sources of such emissions are Colorado Springs Utilities' two coal-burning power plants -- the Martin Drake plant just south of downtown, and the Ray D. Nixon plant, near Fountain.

But even if the changes were to allow CSU to increase emissions, it doesn't mean the utility would take advantage of it, says Don Miles, a spokesman for the company. "We're actually looking to reduce emissions, regardless of regulations," Miles said.

According to Miles, CSU reduced its sulfur dioxide emissions by 6.4 percent from 1997 to 2001, while its nitrogen oxides emissions dropped by 40 percent. This, he says, took place while overall power generation increased by 10 percent.

Dave Padgett, manager of CSU's environmental department, said the utility has installed "scrubbing" technology that reduces sulfur dioxide emissions, as well as new burners that reduce nitrogen oxides emissions.

Senior environmental engineer Michael Brady points out that aside from the federal regulations, the utility also operates under state air-pollution limits. Currently, the utility's coal plants are emitting 30 to 50 percent less pollution than those limits allow, Brady says.

Too soon to predict

Padgett says that because CSU is community-owned, it has an inherent interest in protecting local air quality. "It's a very different philosophy to operate under than the private sector."

The company, Padgett said, has not been cited in his recollection for a clean-air violation in at least 10 years. And the American Lung Association recently gave Colorado Springs a grade of "A" for low air-pollution levels.

Padgett and Brady disagreed with the environmental groups' interpretation of Bush's proposed changes, saying it's too soon to predict the final language.

Hubbard, however, stands by CoPIRG's assessment. "The reality is that it does open the door for new emissions," she said.

If CSU is truly reducing its emissions, then "hats off" to the utility, Hubbard said. But, she added, "It's unfortunate that the policies of the Bush administration aren't encouraging more utilities to go in that direction."

-- Terje Langeland

  • Utility, enviros wrangle over Bush policy

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