New Mexico power plant fouls Colorado air

By Kathrine Warren
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Colorado lawmakers are asking federal agencies to regulate emissions coming from a northern New Mexico power plant that is one of the nation’s largest.

According to 2006 Environmental Protection Agency research, the Four Corners Power Plant is the largest single source of nitrogen oxide in the United States.

Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, and Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, have been working on the problem with New Mexico lawmakers. But, as Isgar pointed out, it’s complicated.

“There are a lot of real jurisdictional barriers to cooperation here,” Isgar said. “Here we are at the intersection of four states, a tribal nation and air quality commissions.”

Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, and Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, have joined forces to urge the EPA to reconsider the granting of a permit for another proposed power plant in the area and to install emissions controls at the plant, which is about 50 miles south of Durango and about 75 miles southwest of Hesperus.

“It is past time that we cleaned up the Four Corners Power Plant — one of the largest sources of air pollution in the country — so that we can reduce ozone, people can breathe easier, and we can improve our western vistas towards what they used to be and should be,” Ritter said in a statement issued this week.

Although the power plant is within New Mexico’s boundaries, it’s on the Navajo Indian Reservation, which has sovereign nation status. Therefore, this issue can be addressed only through such federal agencies as the EPA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which are within the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Since air quality knows no state boundaries, the emissions from the plant affect the entire Four Corners area, including Durango and Cortez, Colo., Mesa Verde National Park, Farmington and Shiprock, N.M., the Navajo Reservation and two Ute reservations.

In a press release, Suthers said he would work with his lawyers and the Department of Public Health and Environment to “protect Colorado’s air and to make sure that the solutions come from the sources that are causing the problem — especially the Four Corners Power Plant.”

Ritter and Suthers’ joint statement came after the state of Colorado was mandated by the Clean Air Act to assess the area’s ozone levels in early March.

Paul Tourangeau, the director of Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division, said the state was mandated to assess which areas could exceed the EPA’s ozone-level standard and identify which regions could be in non-attainment.

Southwestern Colorado, including the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribes, La Plata County, Montezuma County and Archuleta County, has the potential to exceed the mandated ozone levels, as does northwestern New Mexico.

Without knowing what work was being done at the state level, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, coincidentally sent a letter to Suthers last week asking him to co-sign a letter to the EPA requesting strict emission standards for Four Corners Power Plant.

In an interview Monday, Tipton said he had asked Suthers to take action because smog and haze have obscured his view of New Mexico’s famed Shiprock, about 45 miles south of Cortez. The emissions also pose health risks such as asthma and other respiratory issues.

“We know there’s a problem, and there is no time like the present,” Tipton said.

“What I’m calling for is the recognition that we have a very unique situation. They’re downstream and we’re upwind,” he said.

In his letter to Suthers, Tipton said, “Just as New Mexico would not accept toxic pollutants to be dumped by Colorado into the Rio Grande River, neither should Colorado allow avoidable pollutants to flow into our state from New Mexico.”

He also asked Suthers to co-sign a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to take action, since the former Colorado U.S. senator has authority over the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which manages tribal land.

On Tuesday, Suthers and Tipton sent their co-signed letters to Salazar and to Deborah Jordan, the director of the EPA’s Region 9 air division.

Both letters had similar language and asked the respective recipients to use their authority to reduce the power plant’s emissions of nitrogen oxide.

Tipton hopes that Salazar’s connections to Colorado will help push the ball forward on the problem.

Kathrine@coloradostatesman.com