Staring down the Sierra Club 

City Sage

Last September, the Sierra Club dropped the "L-Bomb" on Colorado Springs Utilities and its coal-fired power plants, in the form of a 10- page certified letter addressed to Utilities CEO Jerry Forte. Forte only had to read the first line to know this wasn't an invitation to join club members for their annual picnic at Yosemite: "RE: Notice of Intent to Sue for Clean Air Act Violations at Drake and Nixon Power Plants."

In the letter, the Sierra Club asserted that Utilities "has violated and continues to violate the Clean Air Act and Colorado's Air Quality laws because ... it undertook major modifications at Drake and Nixon without obtaining legally required permits and without complying with limits on the amount of pollution these power plants emit." Subsequent pages detailed 37 specific violations from 1987 to 2011 that resulted in "significant net emission increases for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, lead, and sulfuric acid mix."

It seemed to be a damning indictment. Yet, to a layperson, nothing seemed particularly egregious. Rather, it looked like a grab-bag of purely technical violations, failures of paperwork rather than evidence of a devious plan to sidestep regulators.

Were CSU's engineers, plant managers and senior officials really that incompetent? Had they deliberately flouted Environmental Protection Agency regulations, lied to regulators, ignored the health effects of increased pollution, and sacrificed everything to the Great God Coal?

Or was the suit a purely political maneuver meant to advance the club's national anti-coal agenda? Was it an empty threat intended to stampede Utilities and City Council into abandoning an eminently serviceable coal-fired plant?

According to the club's website, "Coal is an outdated, backward, and dirty 19th-century technology. ... The Beyond Coal campaign's main objective is to replace dirty coal with clean energy by mobilizing grassroots activists in local communities to advocate for the retirement of old and outdated coal plants and to prevent new coal plants from being built."

Many on City Council were skeptical. "They heard that we were having this community discussion about the plant," said former Councilor Bernie Herpin, "and they smelled blood in the water."

Brave words, but if you compare the Sierra Club to a shark, you'd best think Great White. Fifteen years ago, the Club sued the city for repeated violations of the Clean Water Act involving the then-unpaved Pikes Peak Highway. Caught in the crosshairs, the city settled, agreeing to pave the highway, restore damaged high-altitude tundra, and build new drainage structures. The project took 10 years, costing more than $10 million.

From that, the city learned a simple lesson: Don't screw with the Sierra Club. These folks aren't friendly, long-haired do-gooders, but ruthless litigators. Unless you're absolutely sure of your ground, figure out what you can do to make them go away.

So when Council, sitting as the Utilities Board, held firm and decided to ignore the threats, the decision seemed delusional to many observers. The Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign had already contributed to the closure or decommissioning of other coal-fired plants. CSU seemed to be betting the company on Dave Neumann's NeuStream pollution control technology, and appeared irrationally attached to "19th-century technology."

Why not make a deal and move on? Do you really think you can beat the Sierra Club in court?

Nine months later, nothing has happened. No one from the Sierra Club will speak on the record, but there's clearly been a change of heart. On this end, since the April election, a once-hesitantly pro-Drake Council majority has become an unyieldingly pro-coal, pro-Drake supermajority. Even Mayor Steve Bach, who once favored closing Drake, has changed his tune, going so far as to deny that he ever supported any such thing.

As for those 37 violations? They may have as little basis in fact as U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy's 1950 allegation of there being "57 card-carrying Communists" in the State Department.

And unlike the useful mnemonic linked to McCarthy's absurd charge (Heinz's 57 varieties!), there's no easy way to remember "37 violations."


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