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EPA sets new emissions controls on three Arizona power plants

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WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency will require millions of dollars in new equipment at three coal-fired power plants in eastern Arizona, saying it will cut emissions and improve visibility at national parks and wilderness areas in the region.

Thursday’s decision was immediately assailed by operators of the three plants – the Apache Generating Station, Cholla Power Plant and Coronado Generating Station – who said the changes will cost an estimated $500 million without noticeably improving air quality.

“We don’t believe there will be any perceptive improvement in visibility,” said Kelly Barr, an environmental policy officer at Salt River Project, which operates the Coronado Generating Station.

“If we’re spending our customers’ money, we want to make sure there’s a benefit from the expenditure,” Barr said.

But John Thompson, an official with the Clean Air Task Force, said there will be “dramatic benefits in air quality.” He said those benefits, which include improved visibility as well as the better health for those living in the region, are long overdue.

“These are pretty standard controls and the surprise is really how long it has taken to get them required at these facilities,” Thompson said. “This is something that just seems like the really obvious thing to do.”

The EPA decision is aimed at improving air quality, and visibility, throughout much of eastern Arizona and at 18 national parks and wilderness areas in a four-state region of the Southwest. It gives each plant five years to implement the new controls, which will bring the plants’ nitrogen oxide emissions into compliance with current federal standards.

The five-year clock begins ticking when the notice is published in the Federal Register, likely at the end of this month or the beginning of December, said Colleen McKaughan, an associate director in the air division at EPA’s San Francisco office.

“We think that this will actually reduce NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions by about 22,700 tons per year, which is a lot,” McKaughan said.

But plant operators questioned the benefits of the new requirement, which they said is unnecessary.

“From 2007 to 2010, we invested $324 million on pollution equipment, so we believe we’ve accomplished what this rule is,” said Damon Gross, a spokesman for Arizona Public Service. APS operates the Cholla plant.

Gross said he could not comment further until the company had a chance to fully review the 244-page EPA rule.

All the plant operators said the costs of the improved emissions technology would ultimately be passed on to ratepayers, many of whom cannot afford it.

“We’ll look at the viability of various pollution control technologies combined with operational options to achieve the reductions called for in this ruling,” Arizona Electric Power Cooperative spokesman Geoff Oldfather said in a written statement. The co-op operates the Apache plant.

“Regardless of how we do it, it’s going to be expensive and will ultimately affect a disproportionate number of our customers who live at or below the federal poverty level,” the statement said.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, accused EPA officials of “overreaching their authority” and said the agency should not be forcing changes that will result in higher energy costs.

“These unnecessary and exceedingly expensive upgrades will do little to actually improve air quality in our national parks – which is their stated goal,” he said Friday in a written statement.

But McKaughan said the EPA is simply doing its job.

“This comes from a congressional mandate,” she said. “Congress requires us to improve visibility in national parks and wilderness…. That’s what the job is.”