State officials and utilities are trying to kill a plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force owners of three coal-fired power plants to install expensive pollution control equipment to improve visibility.
The fight surrounds a 1990s era law which requires the federal agency to restore more than 150 national parks and wilderness areas to ``natural visibility'' by 2064. More immediately, states are required to show they are making progress toward that goal. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality crafted some plans for the three major pollutants -- sulfur dioxide, particulates and oxides of nitrogen, known in the business as NOx. The EPA accepted the plans for the first two but not for the last. And now the federal agency wants to impose its own more stringent -- and more expensive -- standards. State DEQ director Henry Darwin said that's not appropriate.
"What we have proposed, we believe, does produce some real improvements in visibility," Darwin said. "We just don't think that what EPA is proposing warrants the additional cost associated with the technologies that they are supporting versus the ones we have proposed."
That issue of cost is important. Unlike regulations designed to protect health, Congress required the EPA to do a cost-benefit analysis. The agency's Colleen McKaughan said that starts with looking at what is called the best available retrofit technology. But she said there's no bright line to spell out how much improvement in visibility is worth how much money.
"And it's different for every facility," McKaughan said. "This is a case-by-case analysis. And so we look very specifically at the plant itself and what its situation is and how the numbers play out for each one. So you really can't draw and line and say above this we're not going to require it and below this we will."
But lines are being drawn. Ed Fox, the environmental chief of Arizona Public Service, said his company already has spent $324 million on pollution control equipment at its Cholla generating station near Holbrook. He figures complying with the EPA mandate to move toward natural visibility in 2064 will cost another $182 million.
"For what?" Fox asked. "For a change in emission reduction that won't be humanly perceptible. And so, if you know it's a long term program, you don't have to get it all today, then why would you spend that extra money for something that nobody's going to be able to see anyhow."
But McKaughan said that's not true. She said the EPA's own studies show there would be a noticeable difference, especially when the combined effects of the three Arizona power plants are considered. Gov. Jan Brewer, who has sided with her DEQ and the utilities, said she believes that EPA is paying far too much attention to the perceived improvement in visual quality -- and not enough to the other side of the equation.
"They don't give any consideration, none, no consideration about the jobs that are going to be lost because of their overregulation and the higher costs, the higher energy costs for the Arizona consumers," McKaughan said.
And Brewer has her own theory about why the EPA is making such a hard push to force utilities to spend money to install and operate new pollution control equipment to meet visual standards.
"I don't think it has anything to do with air quality," the Governor said. "It has everything to do with the Obama administration going to war on coal. It's more about politics and not science."
But EPA spokeswoman Margo Perez-Sullivan said that that ignores one simple fact: It was Congress that enacted the law more than a decade ago requiring her agency to take the steps to begin reducing visual pollution now, not the current administration.
The first hearing is set for Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Phoenix. Open House is 4-5, with comment beginning at 6.