Utilities Board rejects deal with Sierra Club on Drake

December 13, 2012
photo - A loader moves coal outside Colorado Springs Utilities' Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008. Photo by The Gazette file
A loader moves coal outside Colorado Springs Utilities' Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008. Photo by The Gazette file 

The Utilities Board rejected a deal Thursday with the Sierra Club that would have slowed a controversial emissions control technology at the coal-fired power plant downtown.

The board voted 5-3 not to sign the agreement with the Sierra Club, which was promising to hold off on suing Colorado Springs Utilities until at least Jan. 21 to continue talks on whether to decommission the Martin Drake Power Plant.

“I just won’t be making decisions for this utility based upon threats and lawsuits,” board member Jan Martin said before the vote, which came after a closed executive session that lasted more than an hour.

In addition to Martin, board Chairman Scott Hente and members Lisa Czelatdko, Bernie Herpin and Brandy Williams opposed the agreement. Merv Bennett, Tim Leigh and Val Snider voted in favor. Angela Dougan left the meeting early and didn’t vote.

The board, made up of the City Council, also considered a motion to direct Utilities to follow the spirit of the agreement without a signature. Of the board members who voted against the agreement, only Williams supported that motion, which failed on a tie vote.

Under the agreement, installation of the NeuStream emission control system at Drake would have been temporarily suspended. Utilities also would have been prohibited from issuing more contracts for additional NeuStream equipment.

Herpin said that was going to happen anyway, but he still opposed the agreement.

“Really, this is not going to impact us at all other than delay the possibility of a lawsuit,” he said. “So really, it’s innocuous. But it’s the principle to me now.”

But Hente, who calls himself “a big believer” in the NeuStream technology, said the agreement was aimed at hobbling local inventor David Neumann and his project.

“I didn’t like the fact that we were trying to put a handcuff on him,” Hente said.

“I’ve been a part of this board for many years, and from Day 1, I’ve been a supporter of moving forward with this. It complied with the regional haze rule. It complied with the EPA guidelines. I was a huge fan of doing this, and I did not want to put — or even be perceived to put — any impediment into installing that technology at a very cost-effective plant.”

Before the vote, Neumann urged the board to have “a full and open discussion with the community” before signing the agreement.

“These dealings by the city attorney may appear to many of the Colorado Springs Utilities’ citizen-owners and ratepayers as truly egregious acts,” he said in an email, referring to secret negotiations between the City Attorney’s Office and the Sierra Club.

Activist Kanda Calef, who heads the group Colorado Springs Citizens for Affordable Energy, also had urged the board to postpone a vote until the public had a chance to weigh in on the agreement. She said delaying installation of the NeuStream scrubbers at Drake would hand the Sierra Club a victory.

“Defeating any technology that improves coal emissions is fundamental to their campaign to end the use of coal itself,” she said. “Clearly, their aim is eventually to prevent that technology from being implemented at all. If you accept this proposal, you will be helping them to make their first stride toward that goal.”

Questions about Neumann’s technology — and whether Drake should be decommissioned — have dogged the billion-dollar-plus utility for months.

In September, the Sierra Club jumped into the picture by filing a notice of intent to sue Utilities. It claims the four-service utility has a long history of federal Clean Air Act violations at Drake as well as the Ray Nixon Power Plant south of Colorado Springs.

In a statement, the Sierra Club said it is “disappointed” the board didn’t support the agreement. But it did not say whether it plans to push ahead with a lawsuit.

“The operation of the 50-year old Martin Drake and the 32-year old Ray Nixon coal plants without modern pollution controls constitutes a serious violation of federal law and a menace to public health,” organizer Bryce Carter said. “We engaged in discussions as part of the regular process of our notice to proceed with litigation on these violations. We hope to continue discussions to find a way to work this out in an amiable and productive manner rather than in the courts — as these violations should not be taken lightly.”

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