Feds plan to sell parcel to PacifiCorp for ash landfill near Utah plant, but environmentalists ask: Why pump more into coal?

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coal truck leaves the coal-fired Hunter Power Plant just south of Castle Dale, Utah, after making a delivery Oct. 23, 2009.

The Bureau of Land Management plans to sell 200 acres in Emery County to PacifiCorp, which says it needs the parcel for a coal-ash landfill and other processes associated with its Hunter Power Plant outside Castle Dale.

The company, the corporate parent to Utah’s largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power, insisted the sale should not be open for competitive bidding out of fear that opponents of coal-generated power would try to acquire the land with the intent of undermining Hunter’s operations.

The proposed transaction was the subject of an environmental assessment released last month, concluding the deal poses no significant impact. But environmental groups have weighed in, denouncing these findings as “patently wrong.” They insist the planned sale, along with the landfill it would enable, should get a higher level of environmental analysis and be opened up to other potential buyers.

Sierra Club staff attorney Matt Gerhart alleged Hunter’s existing landfill is leaking contaminants into the ground and that its operators intend to build a new one on public land without an honest review of potential impacts.

“To make matters worse, the company has asked BLM for a sweetheart deal in which no one other than the company can bid on the land,” Gerhart said. “This public lands giveaway is happening while Rocky Mountain Power admits most of its coal fleet is uneconomic, and it should be transitioning to clean energy rather than damaging new land with coal pollution.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In its final nomination letter, sent Nov. 17, 2017, PacifiCorp said it needs the land to comply with coal-ash regulations issued by the Obama administration and with other unspecified rules. Known as “coal combustion residuals,” or CCR, this waste is laden with toxic metals and other contaminants that can leach into the environment.

“Recently promulgated and possible future environmental regulations related to coal-fired power plants may also require additional lands to accommodate yet undefined process equipment required to continue providing reliable and low cost energy,” the letter states.

The BLM’s environmental analysis does not delve into how the land would be developed, most likely because PacifiCorp hasn’t decided what its going to do with it.

“PacifiCorp is committed to the responsible management of environmental risks and will take all prudent and reasonable actions required by the CCR regulation to protect the environment and public health,” company spokesman Dave Eskelsen said. “Future environmental regulations or operational realities may require additional actions to maintain compliance with environmental requirements. While the company has specifically stated that a potential use for this property may be for an additional coal ash facility, no definite project proposal has been made."

The utility first petitioned the BLM to sell the land, albeit a larger 360-acre piece, in January 2015, several months before the tighter coal-ash regs took effect.

The land PacifiCorp wants is poorly suited for grazing or public recreation, according to the petition, essentially sitting vacant as an inholding within Hunter’s 1,000-acre complex containing the three-unit generating station, wastewater ponds and a 300-acre ash landfill. The 200 acres sit immediately west of the existing landfill.

“The acquisition of the Subject Lands is important to the continued operation of the Plant and its associated facilities,” the company’s nomination letter states. “The economic development objective fulfill[ed] by the requested sale … certainly outweighs the limited public objectives and values associated with the current uses of the Subject Lands.”

In follow-up nomination letters last year, PacifiCorp modified its request to include Bowie Resource Partners, Utah’s largest coal producer, as a co-petitioner. That company, which recently had taken over a coal-prep plant next to the power plant, wanted to participate in the deal to accommodate its own expansion plans. Recently renamed Wolverine Fuels, it now seeks that 160-acre piece in a separate transaction with the BLM.

The 1,455-megawatt Hunter power station burns about 4 million tons of locally mined sub-bituminous coal a year and is expected to remain in service until 2042.

PacifiCorp argued the land qualifies for direct sale, as opposed to competitive bidding, under the BLM’s land-disposal guidelines. The land has little use to anyone except to Hunter’s operators, and an auction would “invite” parties that have no purpose for owning the land other than disrupting the plant’s operations.

“Speculative bidding may unnecessarily increase the costs to the public of the operation at the Plant, and delay PacifiCorp’s acquisition of the Subject Lands," it states in its letters to the BLM.

Gerhart challenged that reasoning in the Sierra Club’s comments.

“Instead of examining whether this noncompetitive sale will serve the public interest, and how any sale could be structured to best serve the public interest, BLM has framed its analysis to put the interests of PacifiCorp first,” Gerhart wrote. “This is not only bad public policy, it violates BLM’s own regulations.”