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Doctor warns of health dangers associated with living near Drake power plant

June 26, 2014 Updated: June 27, 2014 at 7:40 am
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A loader moves coal outside Colorado Springs Utilities' Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs in this 2008 photo. (Christian Murdock, The Gazette)

The health care costs that the community bears due to illnesses related to pollution coming from the downtown coal-fired power plant should be considered in the decision on when to close it, one doctor said.

Pollutants from coal-fired plants can cause mental delay, autism and a host of neurological issues, said Nazli McDonnell, a doctor who specializes in internal medicine and genetics. Those costs are real and born by the people who live closest to the plant, she said.

"I have read the decommissioning study best as I could, given its volume, and I don't see the health costs of keeping it open being calculated," she said. "Please close Drake now. We can't afford it."

McDonnell was among a dozen citizens who spoke at a public meeting Thursday at City Hall on the decommissioning of Drake power plant.

The Colorado Springs City Council, which serves as the Colorado Springs Utilities Board, took input about whether Utilities should close the plant or keep it open as long as 30 years.

Most of the speakers urged the council to close the power plant as soon as possible and find an alternative power source. Some wanted expanded solar gardens while some described natural gas-fired plants as the solution.

But resident Donald Slayer said he worries that if Utilities closes Drake the city will not have a power source to replace it.

"We will be at the mercy of outside sources," he said. "This will put a lot of people out of work."

Drake has become a focal point of a community discussion because of its age and its downtown location. The plant's boilers were built in three phases in 1964, 1968 and 1974.

The City Council is mulling a variety options for Drake that weigh the financial, environmental and social costs of the plant. For example, the best financial option for Utilities is to keep Drake open for the next 30 years. But when greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental and social costs are considered, Utilities could avoid spending $753 million if it closed Drake in 2019.

The council has not decided how much weight it will place on social and environmental costs associated with the plant. It could make some of those decisions next month when it meets as Utilites board.

HDR engineering and consulting firm was hired by the Utilities board to study the potential closure and costs of Drake. The firm did not make a recommendation on the best course of action.

In March, a majority of the council indicated that closing Drake in the short term - meaning fewer than six years - was off the discussion table. It would not be enough time to plan for life post-Drake, which provides about one-third of the city's power. It would take longer to plan and build a replacement power source, the council members said. Instead, the council indicated it would consider a decommissioning date nine to 15 years out, and possibly longer.

But in May, a fire erupted inside Drake and shut down operations at the plant. Those who had been advocating for a short-term closure date said the fire was a good opportunity to permanently close the plant.

"We've been reluctant to add solar and wind because of its intermittency, but the fire has showed another vulnerability," said Jane Ard Smith, an attorney and member of the local Sierra Club.

Since the fire, Utilities has relied on a natural gas-fired plant and has purchased power off the grid to supply energy to customers. The result was an increase in electric rates to cover the cost of buying replacement energy.

This week, one of three units at Drake went back online, using coal to generate electricity. The City Council will consider lowering electric rates at its July 8 meeting, with an effective date of July 11. Utilities is working to get a second Drake unit back online by fall.

Utilities is in the middle of updating the Drake and Ray Nixon power plants with emissions control technology - projects estimated to cost $251 million - to meet the 2017 deadline for the federal guidelines. In November, Colorado Springs City Council approved an electric rate increase, which is expected to generate $12 million in 2014 and be used toward the emissions control project.

The HDR study factors in the $251 million being spent to upgrade the plants, even in the scenario which says Drake could be decommissioned by 2019. All of the options outlined by HDR were compared and contrasted to the base case, which is to keep Drake open for the next 20 years.

"You have all the numbers, you have the emotional arguments, what is good, what is not good," said resident Patti Mulkey. "I want the plant closed as soon as possible. I want to see leadership. I want you to make a decision - hopefully to green energy."

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