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Latest Drake legal battle fizzles 

City Sage

So what's going on at our city's downtown bane, the much-despised, coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant? Despite continuing angry exchanges between environmental activists and city officials regarding the supposed cover-up of crucial emissions data, not much.

Some background: In 2013, the Sierra Club, then in the midst of a campaign to accelerate and/or force the closure of coal-fired power plants nationwide, threatened to sue the city over alleged violations of the Clean Air Act. Using sophisticated emissions modeling techniques, the organization argued that Drake's sulfur dioxide emissions substantially exceeded National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

In response to the threatened lawsuit, CSU hired AECOM, a Fortune 500 engineering and consulting firm with 95,000 employees worldwide, to create an emissions model. Like models created by the Sierra Club and Maureen Barrett at Air Expertise Colorado, AECOM's model did not directly measure emissions. CSU has declined to release the study, noting that it was prepared in anticipation of a lawsuit, and is therefore privileged.

By doing so, is the city covering up malfeasance by Utilities and hiding vital data from the public? Perhaps not. In a recent email to a concerned resident, City Councilor Tom Strand summarized the city's position:

"In response to your concerns with public health risks, the historic and current monitoring data support the conclusion that Colorado Springs meets the 1-hr. sulfur dioxide NAAQS, and Utilities is taking steps that should address your concerns with compliance with the [one-hour] NAAQS.

"From 1990 to 2006, Utilities operated 11 sulfur dioxide monitoring stations throughout the region, including seven within City limits. The data from those monitoring stations not only show that the region was well below the annual sulfur dioxide standards, EPA has reviewed that historic data and determined that the region also met the [one-hour] NAAQS during that period. It is also important to note that sulfur dioxide emissions from the Drake and Nixon plants have been reduced since 2006 due to the burning of lower sulfur coal so that there is no reason to believe that sulfur dioxide levels in Colorado Springs have increased since 2006."

It's no secret that the models seem to contradict the historic data. It can be argued that Utilities should never have removed the monitors in 2006, but there was no apparent reason to retain them. CSU isn't withholding data — it's withholding an opinion about data.

"In fact," as Strand points out, "the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division (APCD) installed a monitoring station less than one mile from the Drake Plant in 2013, and there are now three years of data showing compliance with the NAAQS."

There's also a $200 million reason for optimism — the Neumann Systems scrubbers installed on Drake units 6 and 7 to meet the EPA's Regional Haze regulatory requirements. Unit 5, the plant's oldest and least efficient generator, will be permanently taken offline at the end of the year, and the new scrubbers are reportedly functioning as anticipated. That means that the plant will be fully in compliance with NAAQS going forward.

It doesn't mean a downtown coal-fired plant is a good thing. While SO2 emissions will decrease to less than 2,000 tons annually, the plant will still emit more than 2 million tons of CO2 annually, as well as other pollutants.

That means the current legal and political clash is, like the Seinfeld show, about nothing. Suppose Utilities released the AECOM model, and its results were similar to the Barrett/Sierra Club models? So what? The $200 million solution is already in place. It can be argued that CSU's decision to equip Drake with pollution controls rather than build a new, combined cycle natural gas plant was misguided, but that's beside the point.

What we have now is a nasty legal dispute, culminating in CSU's bizarre decision to sue environmental advocate Leslie Wiese, CSU's longtime adversary. Look, guys — Leslie may be difficult and she may be wrong, but she's a single mom fighting a billion-dollar city enterprise.

I'm sure that there are all kinds of arcane legal reasons for you to withhold the AECOM report, sue Leslie and generally act like jerks, but get over it! Leslie's heart is in the right place.

You definitely have a brain, but a heart? Learn from the Tin Woodman, and get one. Velvet and sawdust will do the trick.

  • The present legal and political clash, like Seinfeld, is about nothing.

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