How well did a test version of the $156 million Neumann Systems Group pollution scrubbers work on the downtown Colorado Springs power plant?
Colorado Springs Utilities won't say publicly.
Though the performance of the scrubbers has serious implications for air quality in the region and the future of the power plant, Utilities says performance data from the pilot system is a trade secret and can't be disclosed.
Utilities is "prohibited from releasing this data" because it contains "trade secrets, and/or confidential and financial information," said Christian Nelson, a Utilities spokesman.
Scrubbers are required on the aging coal plant by 2017 to meet federal clean air standards. The NeuStream scrubber being installed on the downtown Drake Power Plant was developed by local company Neumann Systems Group with the funding of Utilities. It is a one-of-a-kind system never used on a full-size power plant. Utilities said the system went through what it called "a rigorous multistaged testing process" and will easily remove pollutants to a level required by law. But some people, including a chemist who helped develop the system, have questioned how well it will perform.
Utilities chose to develop a unique system with Neumann rather than take bids from established manufacturers. From 2008 to 2011, Utilities spent more than $25 million developing and testing the NeuStream scrubber. As part of the testing, Utilities ran about one-tenth of its exhaust at Drake through a pilot NeuStream system for months and recorded the performance.
That's the data Utilities won't release publicly.
Maureen Barrett, an air pollution consultant in Evergreen, said that data is key because it shows how well the scrubbers will perform.
Barrett is an air pollution modeling expert with more than 20 years' experience. She uses computer algorithms to show what happens to pollution at a power plant once it leaves the smoke stack.
Curious to see how NeuStream might affect the levels of smog in Colorado Springs, she asked Utilities in August for the pilot's performance data so she could plug it into her models, and was told it was a trade secret.
She doesn't think this is true.
The federal Clean Air Act and state air pollution laws require power plants to disclose all emissions. Both allow some trade secrets to be treated as "confidential information," but both state there is no exemption for emissions.
Basically, if pollution is put in the air, plants are required to tell the public what, when and how much, Barrett said, and running some of the pollution through an experimental scrubber does not erase that requirement.
"I don't see how they can say that is not public information," she said.
Utilities told The Gazette trade secrets are subject to "mandatory exclusion" from public disclosure, and "Release of this information could subject Utilities to legal liability under Colorado law."
At the same time Utilities says the data is secret, it can be had for a price. A nonprofit industry group called the Electric Power Research Institute has a report on 80 days of the pilot system's performance that it sells for $5,000.
After the denial by Utilities, Barrett tried requesting the data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees emissions from Colorado power plants. The deputy director, Garry Kaufman, told her in an email that the department does not have the data.
Kaufman told The Gazette that Utilities piped the pilot project exhaust back into its main stack. Utilities reported emissions from the stack, so it never submitted specific pilot testing data to the state, and the state does not plan to request it.
"We won't require that data until the plant has to demonstrate it is in compliance with the law. That isn't until 2017," Kaufman said.
Kaufman said he could not comment on whether the NeuStream pilot data is confidential, saying, "That's probably a question for the courts."
Barrett used the Colorado Open Records Act to try to compel Utilities to disclose the data, saying in an email to Utilities that reviewing the data was "absolutely essential for the public's determination of whether or not they should continue to fund this system, at this time when the future path for this plant and CSU is under evaluation."
But in March, after repeated requests, Utilities told Barrett through one of its lawyers, "The reports you are requesting are not subject to the public availability requirements under the state and federal statutes."
Barrett said the repeated denials underline her initial question: What is in the data?
"When Colorado Springs Utilities is so adamant they can't release the data, you have to ask why not?" she said. "What are they afraid of? You would think if this thing works as well as they say, they would want to show everyone."
Utilities told The Gazette last week that it has no plans to release the performance data.
Barrett emailed City Councilman Andy Pico last week, pressing him to release the data. City Council acts as the Utilities board of directors. Pico replied that the city could not release all the data, but said Utilities would post on its website "the maximum extent possible all of the documents which can be released to include as much test result information as possible. This effort will be completed and the information available as soon as feasible."
He sent Barrett a few documents with general data, but nothing detailed enough for her model.
Barrett plans a new tack: Using the dates the tests were run, and comparing the plant's emissions on those days against days when the tests were not running.
"It is not perfect, but at least it will offer us a few clues," she said. "What we really need is transparency. The bottom line is we still don't know what this thing does."
Follow Dave Philipps on Twitter: