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September 20, 2012

Colorado Coal Plants Violating Pollution Limits, Putting Public Health At Risk

Martin drake power plant -  courtesy Gazette
The Martin Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs. Photo courtesy the Colorado Springs Gazette.

For more than twenty years, two Colorado Springs coal plants have been putting public health at risk by violating the Clean Air Act during dozens of plant construction projects.

The Sierra Club identified 37 separate projects at the Martin Drake and Ray D. Nixon coal fired plants between 1987 and 2011 where plant-owners Colorado Springs Utilities failed to obtain proper permits that would have required the plants to comply with modern pollution control laws.

"The operation of the 50-year old Martin Drake and the 32-year-old Ray Nixon coal plants without modern pollution controls constitutes a serious violation of federal law and a menace to public health," said Bryce Carter, a Sierra Club organizer in Colorado.

The two plants are already known as major public health threats. According to data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Martin Drake coal fired power plant emitted 3,415 tons of nitrogen oxides, 6,035 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 11 pounds of mercury into the heart of downtown Colorado Springs in 2010. That same year, the Ray Nixon coal plant contributed 1,999 tons of nitrogen oxides, 4,078 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 15 pounds of mercury into the air we breathe.

This pollution can lead to short term and chronic respiratory diseases including asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and can exacerbate the effects of heart disease, which can lead to increase hospital visits and premature death. Based on a risk-based analysis of Martin Drake and Ray Nixon's emissions, an estimated $97 million can be attributed to public health impacts that burdened families in 2010.

Colorado Springs Utilities faces enormous capital costs to bring the plants into compliance, and the utility may also be required to pay severe penalties for its past and on-going violations of the Clean Air Act.

Carter says Colorado Springs Utilities is choosing profits over public health.

"They recently had the opportunity to launch a decommissioning study which would have paved the way to retire these old, dangerous, and financially risky coal plants and transition to the use of clean energy. Yet they chose to go the opposite direction, going as far as committing $120 million to extend the life of the Martin Drake plant with the installation of the experimental and unproven technology without fully exploring all their available options."

Colorado Springs Utilities’ own 2012 Electric Integrated Resource Plan shows that an overwhelming majority of their customers want them to invest in renewable energy -- and that they're willing to pay more for it. Yet the utility remains committed to dirty, polluting coal.

In response to the pollution violations, the Sierra Club sent a 60-day "notice of intent to sue" to Colorado Springs Utilities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment stating that the environmental organization will seek legal action if necessary to compel Colorado Springs Utilities to comply with the Clean Air Act.

Under the Clean Air Act, existing coal-fired power plants are required to obtain construction permits and install modern industry standard pollution controls when making major modifications to the facility, which reduce the threat to public health and the environment.

The potential lawsuit is the latest in a series of financial challenges the aging coal plants face as a result of their use of coal. The City of Colorado Springs also risks potential 'nonattainment' status from the federal government as regional air quality models have shown sulfur dioxide (SO2) levels above the federal limit and nearby monitoring stations have shown ozone levels above the federal limit. Both pollutants are major health threats, causing asthma attacks, respiratory disease, and more.

Coal-fired power plants like Martin Drake and Ray D. Nixon are a leading source of pollutants that contribute to regional SO2 and ozone pollution. A non-attainment designation by the EPA could have a disastrous effect on the already depressed local economy and future businesses by severely limiting the availability of permits for large projects, thereby suppressing economic development.

"Colorado Springs Utilities has irresponsibly put public health and the local economy at risk. Their violation of the Clean Air Act, the potential for regional nonattainment status, and their embrace of near certain financial risk to pursue experimental technologies without proper alternative research demonstrates reckless management by CSU," said Carter.

Follow Colorado Beyond Coal on Twitter.

-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club

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