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Showdown over regional haze could shut down coal unit

Smokestacks 500-foot-high that used to spew smoke at the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant now exhaust fewer particulates, but still emit carbon dioxide, other pollutants and water vapor. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

November 19, 2021

by Dustin BleizefferWyoFile

PacifiCorp could be forced to shut down one of four coal-burning units at the Jim Bridger power plant at year’s end unless it is granted more time to comply with federal haze standards, according to landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council.

Alternatively, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could head off a closure by approving proposed revisions to Jim Bridger’s regional haze plan. 

Neither PacifiCorp nor the EPA has indicated that a shutdown is imminent.

PacifiCorp, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, has so far failed to install “selective catalytic reduction” technology at Jim Bridger units 1 and 2 to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. The pollutant contributes to regional haze. SCR installation is a primary condition of Jim Bridger’s federal emissions permit, PRBRC attorney Shannon Anderson said.

The deadline to install the controls is end of 2021 for Unit 2, and end of 2022 for Unit 1.

Meantime, Wyoming will sue EPA for its alleged failure to act on Rocky Mountain Power’s proposed revisions to the regional haze plan for Jim Bridger, Gov. Mark Gordon said in a Nov. 15 “notice of intent” letter. Those revisions would remove the SCR controls requirement. 

Gordon chastised EPA, accusing it of intentionally imposing higher energy costs, undermining grid reliability and threatening Wyoming jobs while working against more effective actions to curb environmental impacts. “And for what?” he wrote EPA. “Shallow talking points on the international stage?”

Rocky Mountain Power  believes it will remain in compliance with its federal emissions permit despite not installing the SCR technology, according to a spokesman.

“Our objective continues to be to maintain compliance and operate Jim Bridger units 1 and 2 until 2024, at which time they would be converted to use natural gas fuel,” Rocky Mountain Power spokesman David Eskelsen told WyoFile via email. “We are also committed to work constructively with both the state of Wyoming on their state implementation plan, and with EPA on resolving this regulatory issue.”

The row between Wyoming and EPA over regional haze dates back more than a decade. As the federal agency has revised standards aimed at curbing emissions, Wyoming coal-fired electrical power producers have recalculated the return-on-investment and ratepayer implications of adding emission controls to meet regional haze requirements.

Regional haze regulation

Regional haze, in a regulatory context, is the degradation of visibility via human-caused emissions that diminish the characteristics and enjoyment of a landscape, according to EPA. 

EPA’s regional haze program focuses on reducing industrial emissions to help clear viewsheds, particularly in national parks and wilderness areas. The Jim Bridger power plant falls within several “Class 1” regional haze designations, which include Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

That proximity and potential to contribute to diminished viewsheds obligates Jim Bridger’s operator to meet tailored emission standards for nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and particulate matter — the main industrial pollutants that contribute to regional haze.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality holds primacy over implementing the federal Clean Air Act in the state, and serves as intermediary between industrial emitters and EPA. In other words, EPA sets baseline or minimum standards and Wyoming DEQ works with federal permittees in the state about how to meet or exceed them.

Long regulatory row

EPA in 2014 approved Wyoming DEQ’s “state implementation plan,” which outlined how Jim Bridger and other coal-fired power plants in the state would meet emission reductions to comply with EPA’s regional haze goals. But the plan has been in litigation since, with the state and Rocky Mountain Power asking to revise the plan and conservation groups encouraging EPA to stick with more stringent controls.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.