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Colorado Springs Utilities nudged over polluting plants

click to enlarge Haze, which a recent study links to old power plants and - similar polluters along the Front Range, reduces visibility - in Rocky Mountain National Park. - VISIBILITY INFORMATION EXCHANGE WEB SYSTEM, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY

State health officials have connected aging industrial sites, including two Colorado Springs-owned coal power plants, to a brownish haze that sometimes obscures the state's most-prized vistas.

The news came last week by way of an analysis of 14 facilities around Colorado believed to be major contributors to reduced visibility in places like Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Included on the list are Colorado Springs' Martin Drake and Ray D. Nixon power plants.

As a result, Colorado Springs Utilities may be shelling out big bucks as part of a state-led effort to battle haze -- up to $100 million, should state regulators ask the utility to install pollution-reducing equipment at the power plants.

The amount is so substantial that the utility has begun to take a closer look at long-run alternatives, including closing the Martin Drake plant near downtown. For several years, CSU has acknowledged that the aging power plant, built in 1925, likely will be closed by 2010 or 2015, though this week, spokesman Steve Berry maintained that an official closing date never was set.

The plant, like others on the list, releases fine particle pollution into the air. The particles may drift hundreds of miles, and experts link them to serious lung illnesses, infant deaths and acid rain.

The facilities wound up under scrutiny because they are exempt from the requirements of the Clean Air Act of 1977, having been built before the act went into effect. This year, the Environmental Protection Agency began pushing state health departments around the nation to identify the worst polluters and to create haze-reduction plans.

The utility is exploring everything from building another coal plant to expanding its renewable energy, such as wind power, says Michael Brady, an interim environmental manager for the utility.

click to enlarge This image shows increased haze levels. - VISIBILITY INFORMATION EXCHANGE WEB SYSTEM, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY

On the face, building a new coal plant appears cheaper than building sources of wind power, he says.

But Matt Baker, director for the Denver-based nonprofit Environment Colorado, notes that because of regulations, new coal power and wind power are roughly the same price.

Also worth considering is last year's passage of Amendment 37, which requires utilities to obtain at least 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015.

"The amendment was a modest goal," Baker says. "I think most utilities will exceed them in advance for several reasons, including the rising cost of natural gas and the costs of environmental controls [on coal plants]."

Baker adds that he expects Colorado Springs Utilities to be among those utilities.

The Drake and Nixon plants don't have "scrubbers" installed. Scrubbers, which cost millions of dollars to retrofit, reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.

Mike Silverstein, an air pollution official with the state health department, notes that scrubbers are required in all new plants built today.

"They're being used all over the country and all over the world," he says. "The thinking is that these sources of pollution have been uncontrolled long enough."

Further analysis of the 14 sites will help shape a plan of action by 2007, Silverstein adds.

-- Michael de Yoanna

  • Colorado Springs Utilities nudged over polluting plants

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