Concerned that clean air and public health in Wyoming and the Northern Rockies region have been significantly undercut by a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision regulating pollution from coal-fired power plants, local residents and conservation groups today filed an appeal in federal court to secure cleaner air.
The appeal of EPA’s pollution control decisions has been filed in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals by Earthjustice on behalf of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, National Parks Conservation Association, and Sierra Club.
“When coal is burning at Wyoming power plants, nearby states get electricity and we get the pollution,” said Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a Wyoming citizens’ organization. “With the modern technologies available now to cut smokestack emissions or generate electricity from cleaner sources, there’s just no excuse for any more foot dragging or loopholes on cleaning up Wyoming’s power plants.”
Coal-fired power plants in Wyoming release about 47,000 tons of nitrogen oxide pollution and 40,000 tons of sulfur pollution into the air each year, according to EPA’s 2013 Air Markets Program data. As an example of the other contaminants typical in coal emissions, annual toxic releases from the smokestacks at PacifiCorp’s 1970s-era Jim Bridger plant near Rock Springs include over half a million pounds of acid gases (hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, and hydrogen fluoride); about 250 pounds of lead; and around 500 pounds each of mercury, chromium, and nickel.
Groups are supporting the EPA on its decision to require Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) pollution control updates for Wyoming’s Laramie River and Wyodak coal plants within five years, controls which will curb nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 90 percent—but the agency took a more lax approach on PacifiCorp’s Naughton and Dave Johnston plants where the industry-wide pollution control standard was not required. Groups are challenging these weak control decisions, which, if successful will preclude these plants from continuing to emit preventable pollution despite the prevalence of cost effective controls.
“EPA cannot give PacifiCorp’s aging coal plants a free pass when it comes to cleaning up haze-causing air pollution,” stated Gloria Smith, an attorney with the Sierra Club. “PacifiCorp must be required to do what many other utilities across the country have done—clean up the air and protect public health.”
Steps to update coal plants with modern pollution controls, or to instead transition to cleaner energy resources, provide public health benefits as well as helping to guard important national parks and wilderness areas against industrial pollution. Nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory problems, and they combine with other compounds in the air to form particularly dangerous fine particle pollution; exposure can cause heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks and lung cancer. Mercury and lead can cause brain and nervous system damage, especially in children. Chromium and nickel are carcinogens that can cause lung, bladder, kidney, and skin cancer.
Particle pollution produced by nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution from Wyoming coal plants contributes to haze at Yellowstone, Grand Teton Badlands and Wind Cave national parks, as well as the Washakie, North Absaroka, Teton, Fitzpatrick and Bridger wilderness areas.
“Public lands like Yellowstone National Park define the region attracting millions of visitors and billions of dollars annually,” said Bart Melton, National Parks Conservation Association’s Yellowstone field manager. “With modern pollution controls and clean energy options it is incumbent upon regulators to abate preventable pollution for the wellbeing of our national parks and health of visitors and neighboring communities.”
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation generated $4.5 billion in spending in Wyoming in 2011-2012, generated $1.4 billion in wages and salaries, directly employed 50,000 people and generated $300 million in state and local tax revenues. Last fall’s federal government shutdown provided another reminder of the importance of investing in protection of Wyoming’s national parks. During the month of October when the shutdown took place and parks were closed for several weeks, Wyoming was among the top five states in the country in terms of associated economic impact (more than $20 million drop in typical visitor spending), according to a Department of Interior report.
“Wyoming is home to some of our nation’s most treasured public lands,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine. “These lands deserve no less than the full protection of our federal clean-air laws from Wyoming’s dirty coal plants.”