EPA guts plan that would have slashed pollution from Utah coal plants

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune via AP) In this Sept. 8, 2015, file photo, a natural gas rig pumps away in the foreground of the coal-fired Huntington Power Plant west of Huntington, Utah. A 20-year plan by Utah's largest electricity provider stipulating that it will not add pollution-control systems to its coal power plants has received criticism from some in the state who say it means continued regional haze, including around national parks. The federal Environmental Protection Agency now says expensive new pollution controls are not needed.

Federal environmental officials have approved Utah’s new plan for limiting coal-fired power plant emissions to address “regional” haze marring the state’s famous national parks, although environmentalists say it’s a step backward when it comes to improving air quality.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision, announced Wednesday, applies to PacificCorp’s Hunter and Huntington power plants in Emery County. The revised emission-reduction plan credits the utility’s prior retirement of the nearby Carbon Power Plant and prior emission-reduction investments, concluding it does not need to make any new upgrades at the operating plants in order to comply with the Clean Air Act.

“It’s frustrating to have the answer right in front of us and then have politics overshadow the science,” said Kirstin Peterson, owner of Rim Tours in Moab. “The only thing that Utah’s new haze plan does is ensure that we’re going to continue having polluted skies that mar Utah’s tremendous landscapes and harm the health of visitors, wildlife, resources and our outdoor recreation economy.”

In authorizing the new plan, the EPA withdrew the previous plan approved by the Obama administration in 2016, which had called for expensive selective catalytic reduction (SCR) equipment installed at the plants. Such upgrades would have cut nitrogen oxide emissions, a leading cause of haze, by 75% according to the National Parks Conservation Association, or NPCA.

In 2017, however, a federal appeals court granted a request by the Trump administration to halt the plan.

“We appreciate the efforts of EPA to act on Utah’s plan and the many stakeholders who participated in the development of the plan.” Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said in a statement released Wednesday by the EPA. “Utah’s regional haze plan has protected visibility in our national parks, supported rural economies and reduced emissions of harmful air pollutants for the residents and visitors to the state.”

According to the EPA, Utah’s new plan will reduce missions by 1,879 tons per year relative to the 2016 plan.

Conservationists, however, argued the replacement plan does nothing to clean the air.

“Smart communities all across the West began moving away from fossil fuels and building new, thriving economies by diversifying and investing in clean energy, outdoor recreation, and long-term, sustainable job prospects even before COVID hit,” said Scott Williams, executive director of HEAL Utah. “We cannot afford a rear-view mirror approach that puts a dying coal industry ahead of a vibrant outdoor recreation economy that Utah has built.”

According to an analysis by NPCA, the Hunter and Huntington plants, which began operating in 1978 and 1974, respectively, are among the nation’s worst in terms of their haze pollution, which affects Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks. The three-unit Hunter plant ranks No. 2 on the list of all pollution sources in the nation, not just coal plants, while the Huntington plant ranks No. 18.

“We need leaders with a bold vision, who can see past the politics and industry pressure to come up with a real plan that steers us toward clean energy resources,” said Cory MacNulty, NPCA’s southwest associate director. “We will continue to fight until Utahns and our national parks have the clean air they need and deserve.”