The Sierra Club is alleging that Colorado Springs Utilities has been violating federal law during the past 24 years by making what it calls “major modifications” to the Martin Drake and Ray Nixon coal-fired power plants without the necessary permits.
The environmental organization filed a notice of intent to sue Utilities on Monday, claiming the city-owned utility faces “enormous capital costs to bring the plants into compliance” as well as “severe penalties” for violating the Clean Air Act.
Utilities “undertook major modifications at Drake and Nixon without obtaining legally required permits and without complying with limits on the amount of pollution these power plants emit,” the claim states.
The modifications led to “significant net emission increases for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide” and other pollutants, it states.
Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman said the Sierra Club has filed similar legal notices with many coal-fired power plants nationwide in the past few years.
“The notice to each utility alleges that the projects at a power plant have increased pollution. Colorado Springs Utilities has been diligent to evaluate all projects at Drake and Nixon and believe the plants are in compliance with all regulations,” he said in an email.
But Bryce Carter, an organizer for the Sierra Club, said the organization found at least 37 projects from 1987 to 2011 in which Utilities failed to obtain the required permits.
Utilities made the power plant modifications without regard to federal law and at the expense of public health in its quest to continue to use coal, he said.
“We want accountability of Colorado Springs Utilities’ poor mismanagement, frankly,” Carter said.
“It’s federal law. Everyone is accountable to this. It’s not like Colorado Springs Utilities is special in this case,” he said.
Grossman said Utilities has gone “beyond the letter of the law,” which requires no increases in pollution and that it continues to reduce emissions. For example, he said, Utilities has reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 50 percent with the addition of pollution controls.
The 10-page legal notice, filed on behalf of the Sierra Club by Kentucky-based attorney Robert Ukeiley, comes in the midst of an intense debate about the future of the Drake plant downtown and an emissions control technology being tested at the aging facility.
In fact, the legal notice was triggered by the debate.
Carter said the Sierra Club regularly studies whether coal-fired power plants are complying with state and federal laws. The debate about Drake and the clean coal technology of Springs-based Neumann Systems Group was “definitely a consideration” when the Sierra Club decided to examine Colorado Springs Utilities more closely, he said.
The organization wants the country to transition away from fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, to renewable energy, such as wind and solar, for power.
“There are broader questions here that tie into the broader dialogue,” Carter said.
In a statement, Carter said the Utilities Board “recently had the opportunity to launch a decommissioning study which would have paved the way to retire these old, dangerous, and financially risky coal plants and transition to the use of clean energy.”
But he said the board, comprised of the City Council, “chose to go the opposite direction” and “extend the life of the Martin Drake plant with the installation of the experimental and unproven NeuStream technology without fully exploring all their available options.”
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