Secret talks with Sierra Club aimed at averting lawsuit

December 12, 2012
photo - A loader moves coal outside Colorado Springs Utilities' Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008. Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK/The Gazette file
A loader moves coal outside Colorado Springs Utilities' Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008. Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK/The Gazette file 

Behind-the-scenes negotiations between the city and the Sierra Club have led to an agreement that would avert a lawsuit, at least temporarily, against Colorado Springs Utilities over alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.

“We would much prefer to save everybody’s time and money, and I think the city has the same perspective,” Bill Corcoran, western regional director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said Wednesday.

The so-called tolling agreement “gives us an opportunity to take a timeout and talk about the issue rather than being trapped in a litigation calendar,” he said.

City Attorney Chris Melcher would neither confirm nor deny that an agreement has been reached.

But Melcher said his office and Utilities have been in discussions with the Sierra Club, including whether or not the threat of litigation would lead to a lawsuit or “other communications.”

“We will be briefing the Utilities Board (in closed executive session Thursday) on the status of those discussions with the Sierra Club, and we’ll ask the board for guidance,” Melcher said.

The board, comprised of the City Council, has discussed the matter in executive session twice before.

Board decisions must be made in public, and officials hinted that a decision was looming.

“If the board reaches a decision (Thursday), they may have a statement with regard to the future direction of this matter,” Melcher said.

In September, the Sierra Club filed a notice of intent to sue Utilities. It claimed the city-owned utility did “major modifications” at the Martin Drake and Ray Nixon coal-fired power plants but failed to obtain legally required permits and violated pollution limits, too. The Sierra Club claims it found at least 37 projects from 1987 to 2011 in which Utilities failed to obtain the necessary permits.

But the dispute is about more than permits and alleged pollution increases.

It’s tied to the Sierra Club’s campaign to move away from coal, and came amid an ongoing community debate about whether or not the city should decommission the Drake power plant downtown.

Some say a controversial emissions control technology being installed at Drake also is in jeopardy and that city officials who oppose it are using the threatened lawsuit as leverage to derail the project. Utilities bankrolled the technology, which was invented by Springs-based Neumann Systems Group.

“We see that there’s a lot of different health impacts (with coal), and we also see that there’s a pretty clear path to transition off of Martin Drake and at the same time, save ratepayers money,” said Bryce Carter, an organizer for the Sierra Club.

The private negotiations between the city and the Sierra Club have outraged the Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity. The group sent a mass email to its members Wednesday night, encouraging them to contact utility board members and urge them to vote against “secret” deals.

The email’s subject line is: “Demand an End to Backroom Deals with Green Bullies.”

“I’m worried, given the secrecy that shrouds these talks, as well as the questionable motives of the environmental extremists at The Sierra Club, that any ‘deal’ cut behind closed doors might not be in your best interests,” Jeff Crank, a conservative radio host who is AFP’s state director, wrote in the email.

“At least we know what The Sierra Club wants. The bigger mystery here is why anyone at the city and its utility would be negotiating in secret with this group of radicals, based on a mere threat to sue from a gang of environmental extortionists,” he wrote.

Contact Daniel Chacón: 476-1623

Twitter @danieljchacon

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