Save four current and former politicians, not a single voice testified Monday night in favor of renewing the operating permit proposed for Colorado Springs Utilities' coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant.

Rather, dozens of residents, activists, engineers, number crunchers and regulatory fanatics asked members of the state's Air Quality Control Commission to either tweak the permit as it's proposed, or to deny it entirely.

The public hearing is one of the last steps in the process of renewing Drake's operating permit, which binds the downtown plant to a set of clean-air rules and regulations outlined in the document. The plant's last such permit was issued in 2002 and expired in 2007. Since then, the permit has been extended by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment while Drake complies with new state regulations and limits.

But many called that compliance into question Monday night. They began outside Centennial Hall as members of the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental activists hoisted signs decrying Drake's continued operation. Others wore face masks meant to filter air pollutants. The theatrics played out with an giant inflatable asthma inhaler as a backdrop.

As the hearing began about 100 people filtered into Centennial Hall's auditorium to address two of the commission's nine members.

The most common request was for the commission to impose a one-hour standard, rather than a 30-day average, for measuring the sulfur dioxide emissions from Drake.

"I'm not aware of any residents in this community that breathe on a 30-day average," said Zach Pierce, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign in Colorado.

That hourly limit is part of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard, accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency, said Francois Raab, a computer systems engineer and Manitou Springs resident.

A $200 million scrubber system installed on Drake's two coal-fired units still in operation work well in removing much of the sulfur dioxide from the plant's emissions, Raab said. But when the scrubbers are down, he said, residents are at risk and a 30-day standard allows the plant to mask harmful spikes in emissions.

Manitou Springs Mayor Ken Jaray echoed the request for a one-hour standard.

But before the hearing David Padgett, chief environmental services officer for Utilities, said imposing an ambient standard on Drake is impractical, in part because the plant makes up just one part of the region's ambient air. And a one-hour standard would mean Drake must shut down whenever the scrubbers are off, which is expensive and inefficient.

Utilities spokeswoman Amy Trinidad said among coal plants in Colorado, Drake had the lowest sulfur dioxide emissions on a pounds per megawatt hour basis last year.

Others took issue with those statistics, however, noting that the commission deemed Drake's emissions "unclassifiable" last November for the second time in two years.

El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf asked the commission to approve the permit and said that closing Drake would harm low-income families by boosting electric rates.

"If there is one thing we could or should do to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it would be to boycott Chinese products," VanderWerf said, referencing Drake's emissions. "China right now produces 62 percent of its power with coal, while the United States produces 15 percent of its power with coal."

VanderWerf's request for the permit was echoed by City Councilman Andy Pico, County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr. and former Councilwoman Helen Collins.

Collins noted that her grandparents lived into their 90s, even with coal chutes in their basements.

Among the last of the speakers was Monument clean-air advocate Leslie Weise, who sued the city and Utilities in 2015 - to obtain an air-quality report on Drake - and again in November, alleging defamation by past and current council members.

Weise noted that Drake is both inefficient and uncompetitive, even when compared to other coal plants. She questioned whether the commission will give any weight to the comments offered Monday night. Such was not the case in the past, she said.

Load comments