City leaders in Manitou Springs are concerned an existing air quality monitor might not detect pollutants drifting northwest from the Martin Drake Power Plant, putting residents at risk of unknowingly breathing unhealthy air.
The Manitou Springs City Council voted unanimously on June 20 to write to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment urging the agency to install a new sulfur dioxide monitor nearby or move the existing monitor, which some say is poorly situated to gauge the effects of the coal-fired plant's emissions on residents.
The department said in a statement that Colorado Springs Utilities is working on a modeling study that will help regulators determine if the apparatus is in the right place and if others are needed.
The monitor, required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, began operating near U.S. 24 and South 8th Street in 2013 because the site was close to the plant and had the "required set-up for monitoring," said Garry Kaufman, director of the state's Air Pollution Control Division.
But the City Council argues the location isn't near homes, schools or other areas where people could be vulnerable to pollutants.
"Continuing to monitor at the same location is most likely to continue confirming what is already known, rather than producing new data that will answer open questions," the City Council said in its comment, submitted in response to a plan the state is federally required to update annually to account for air quality monitoring sites.
The question of whether the plant has always complied with federal limits on SO2 emissions has been a source of controversy and confusion.
The SO2 levels in the area surrounding the plant have been considered "unclassifiable" by the state since 2015 due to insufficient data. After the designation, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission ordered Utilities to erect a tower to gather meteorological data for a modeling study that's likely to be completed later this summer, according to the department. Protocols for the analysis have been developed and are under a public review period until July 21.
Modeling involves feeding a computer program meteorological and emissions data to produce results - a process that one state air quality official called "the gold standard" for measuring SO2 emissions while speaking to the Colorado Springs City Council at a March meeting. But Francois Raab, the Manitou Springs computer systems engineer that drafted the city's comments, said monitoring is the best way to find out if pollution from the plant is adversely affecting area residents.
"That is really the crux of the matter ... that there (is) no evidence," he said. "[Modeling] is not actual, factual data. It is mathematically calculating what might be happening ... given how the wind blows."
In the past, local activists have pointed to two modeling analyses - one released by the Sierra Club and another prepared by an engineer at Air Expertise Colorado - that show the plant violates SO2 standards. But the EPA and the Department of Public Health and Environment dismissed both studies because they relied on meteorological data from the Colorado Springs Airport.
According to the Sierra Club report, Manitou Springs is among other areas along the foothills where emissions do not meet regulatory requirements.
Clean-air advocate Leslie Weise told The Gazette in November that another analysis, prepared by a firm Utilities hired to assist with air quality assessments, also confirmed the plant's SO2 emissions exceeded federal limits. The AECOM Technical Services report was accidentally disclosed to Weise by a Colorado Court of Appeals clerk after Utilities and a 4th Judicial District judge refused her request for a copy of the study.
Weise, a Monument attorney, appeared before the Manitou Springs City Council in December to express concerns about area residents breathing unsafe air.
After her visit, the City Council asked Utilities for a copy of the undisclosed report by AECOM Technical Services. Utilities declined to release the document but invited the City Council to tour the plant earlier this year, said Councilwoman Coreen Toll.
Utilities has disputed the claim that emissions exceeded regulatory limits. The service provider spent more than $178 million on a scrubber system to cut back the plant's SO2 emissions. Last year, tests on one of the plant's units showed the system helped to capture more than 97 percent of SO2.
In December, a Utilities official acknowledged the existing monitor is in the wrong place, making the data it collects invalid. But when asked about its location last week, Utilities spokeswoman Amy Trinidad said information gathered by the new meteorological tower indicates that the monitor is likely in an appropriate position.
A new monitor would be expensive. Top-notch equipment and computer systems typically run between $50,000 and $80,000, and the cost to operate the devices and process captured data costs about $25,000 annually, according to the state Health Department. The state pays for monitoring that is required by regulation, sometimes with funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Otherwise, local groups and agencies must scrape together the money if they want a monitor.
Manitou Springs Mayor Nicole Nicoletta was absent from the June 20 meeting and excused from the vote, but she expressed support for the decision to reach out to the state.
"Manitou Springs is full of citizens who are very mindful of the environment and their own health and safety," she said. "If I've got residents who are concerned and willing to do some of the work, I'm happy to support that."
Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108