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Haze hearing


State and federal environmental regulatory agencies offered plans to reduce air pollution caused by coal-fired power plants.

Clifton Adcock April 20th, 2011

Three minutes. That’s how much time each person — from the governor’s office to college students — got to address the Environmental Protection Agency concerning its plan to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions at three Oklahoma coal-fired power plants.

A little more than 40 people submitted their comments at the EPA public hearing in Oklahoma City, held April 13 at the Metro Technology Center Springlake campus, although far more people were in attendance.

above Susan Schmidt participated in an April13 Sierra Club press conference that protested coal-fired power plant pollution.

Those commenting were about evenly divided between those opposed and in support of the proposed EPA regulations, and both sides passionately explained their positions.

In 2007, all states were required to submit a plan to reduce regional haze, said Joe Kordzi of the EPA, but after the states failed to submit their plans by the deadline, and the EPA was late in taking further action, an environmental group known as WildEarth Guardians sued the agency.

In January 2010, the EPA entered into a consent decree with WildEarth to establish controls on a range of coal-fired plant emissions, such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, to protect established Class I areas. Federal Class I areas are special national or regional areas valued from a natural, scenic, recreational or historic perspective and have special protections under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA identified six coal-fired units at three power facilities owned by OGE and AEP-PSO as impacting haze levels at four Class I sites:

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, the Caney Creek and Upper Buffalo wilderness areas in Arkansas and Hercules Glade Wilderness in Missouri.

The state Department of Environmental Quality submitted a plan that included allowing OGE and AEP-PSO to burn low-sulfur coal and install sulfur dioxide scrubbers by 2018, or switch to natural gas by 2026.

However, the EPA rejected part of the state’s plan, and instead is considering implementing its own standards, which would limit sulfur dioxide emissions from the plants to 0.06 pounds per million British thermal units on a 30-day rolling average. The companies would have about three years to make the changes.

If implemented, the standards mean the power plants would essentially be given two choices: Install scrubbers to clean the sulfur dioxide from emissions, or convert the coalfired generating units to natural gasfired units.

Those in the electric industry expressed concern that the requirements could cost hundreds of millions of dollars — if not more — in costs that could be passed on to the customer via 10 to 15 percent rate hikes, although the EPA questioned those estimates.

The EPA is taking public comments on the proposed changes until May 23, and a final set of rules must be established by June 21.

The Oklahoma City chapter of the Sierra Club held a press conference at the event stating its support for the EPA plan.

“Coal pollution chokes our air with haze, and it chokes our lungs with toxic chemicals,” said Sierra Club representative Whitney Pearson. “We deserve clean air and water. The EPA has a responsibility to keep us safe from coal pollution. We don’t need to put our health at risk with outdated, dirty energy. Instead, we could be using clean, homegrown Oklahoma energy like wind, solar and responsibly extracted natural gas that will create jobs and keep our families and economy healthy.”

The public comment period allowed a wide range of individuals and interests to submit their comments to the EPA.

Statements from Gov. Mary Fallin, Rep. James Lankford, and Attorney General Scott Pruitt were submitted to the EPA, all asking the federal agency to allow the state to abide by its own plan.

State DEQ Director Steve Thompson, Oklahoma’s top environmental oversight official, argued that the EPA’s plan is not cost-effective for the power companies and that the state’s plan balances both cost-effectiveness and environmental protection.

“DEQ determined the installation of scrubbers for (sulfur dioxide) controls is not cost-effective because of the high cost and the associated limited potential visibility improvement at these Class I areas,” Thompson said.

Thompson also said the state’s plan would result in a bigger reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions in the long-term.

Joe Bush, a cattle rancher from Osage County whose ranch is about 30 miles northeast of one of the targeted electricity-generating plants, said he often sees the haze on the horizon near his ranch.

“I’m not sure some people know how much poison is spewed up in the air 30 miles southwest,” Bush said. “I’m not a scientist; I’m not an environmentalist. I’m just a cattle rancher, and I can tell you what I’ve seen. I’m proud of you guys for having the guts to stand up to big pockets and people who buy governments. I hope anything that can be done will be done to reduce the toxins in the air.”

Thomas Schroedter, executive director of Oklahoma Industrial Energy Consumers, said the EPA’s plan would discourage industrial investment in Oklahoma, although his group is not opposed to cost-effective environmental regulation.

“Our country must create a regulatory environment where manufacturers want to invest here, rather than invest in other countries,” Schroedter said. “In order to attract investment, the U.S. must not embrace policies or promulgate rules that increase energy costs for industries.”

Charles King, director of the Langston Community Development Corporation, said he supports the state’s plan, and warned that families already struggling would be devastated by a large hike in their utility bills.

“We realize that while the state’s plan would be more time-consuming, it would still achieve the goal of restoration,” King said. “The plan pushed by the EPA would cause an approximate 10 to 15 percent increase in utility bills. Our community cannot bear the weight of this increase. We would submit the state of Oklahoma could not bear this increase, either, as the state of Oklahoma is seventh in the nation in its poverty level.”

Charles Wesner, chair of the Oklahoma Sierra Club, said adopting the EPA regulations would be an important step forward in a decades-long fight for environmental quality.

“I can tell you every step along the way, we have been opposed by corporate polluters, like the ones you see here today, and their political servants. There has been no significant environmental progress made in this county that was not vigorously, if not viciously, opposed by these people. They use the same arguments today that they did 50 years ago: This will kill jobs; this will kill the economy; this will kill growth. None of it was true then or now. In fact, it’s just the reverse.”

 
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