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Environmental group may sue Colorado Springs Utilities

March 30, 2016 Updated: March 31, 2016 at 11:11 am
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photo - One of three units at the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant will close by the end of next year.  (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
One of three units at the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant will close by the end of next year. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

Colorado Springs Utilities will be sued in U.S. District Court unless it rectifies its failure to continuously monitor opacity of emissions from the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant, WildEarth Guardians announced Wednesday.

Opacity levels show whether harmful particulates are present, but Utilities has violated monitoring requirements at least 3,155 times over the past five years, WildEarth alleged, making it liable for at least $118 million in civil penalties.

Utilities' lawyer Rick Griffith, of the City Attorney's Office, responded by email, saying Drake stacks have been monitored for more than 20 years. He said he could not respond to claims that the monitoring has not been continuous, as required by law, because that is part of the potential litigation.

"We achieve or perform better than our permitted emission limits and data shows (sic) that the Pikes Peak region to be in attainment of the EPA's National Ambient Air Quality Standards," Griffith wrote.

WildEarth made the claim based on Utilities' submissions to the state.

"One of the solutions here is to compel them to install backup continuous opacity monitors," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. "That could cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, so we could be looking at even more liability . if they don't take these issues seriously.

"We do want better monitoring. But we also want to expose just how dirty these power plants are."

Last year, Drake released 3,959 tons of sulfur dioxide, 2,136 tons of nitrogen oxides, 1.8 million tons of carbon dioxide and more than 26 tons of other pollutants, including barium compounds, dioxins, hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acids, and mercury and lead compounds, WildEarth reported, citing Utilities records submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Utilities is spending $178.4 million on a NeuStream scrubber system being installed at Drake to slash sulfur dioxide emissions. Some have questioned the wisdom of that, given that aging coal-fired power plants are being closed across the country as more rigorous Clean Air Act standards take effect.

At Drake, Units 5, 6 and 7 are 54, 48 and 42 years old, respectively. Unit 5 is being decommissioned, but plans call for Units 6 and 7 to continue burning coal until 2035.

"Coal carries a tremendous cost," Nichols said. "Utilities finally are realizing they can't afford it anymore. There is no safe level of coal burning. No amount of mercury is good for human health.

"This is about trying to enforce rules and regulations but also turning the pressure up on coal burners. Those (Drake) boilers right now can fire with natural gas. They have options here."

Earlier this month, Xcel Energy settled a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians in 2009, citing clean-air violations at the Cherokee coal-fired power plant in North Denver. Xcel agreed to stop burning coal at Cherokee by the end of 2017 and will provide $447,000 to upgrade energy efficiency in 142 homes while adding solar energy to public buildings and an open space project.

"It is truly a victory when two parties engaged in conflict can productively put their differences aside and put our health and environment first," said Mike Harris, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

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