Four Corners tourism endangered by smog

By Kathrine Warren
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

It’s easy to tell why the Four Corners area — where Colorado’s border meets the borders of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah — is a popular tourist destination.

Visitors to such towns as Durango, Pagosa Springs and Cortez are within minutes of the skiing, rafting, fishing, hiking and camping opportunities provided by the towering San Juan and San Juan mountains. Travelers who prefer to take their adventures sitting down can enjoy the scenery from the historic cars of the Durango & Silverton or Cumbres & Toltec narrow gauge railroads. Lovers of ancient cultures will gain sustenance from touring Mesa Verde National Park.

But there’s trouble in paradise. Some Colorado lawmakers are concerned that increasingly poor air quality in the area will begin to affect tourism — and it seems there’s not a whole lot they can do about it.

Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is concerned that visitors will be deterred by the increasingly noticeable “brown cloud” that sometimes looms over the region, obscuring scenic views.

“Visitors have a less favorable impression of our region when they think it is heavily polluted,” she said.

The haze is, for the most part, blamed on the single largest emitter of nitrogen oxide in the United States: the Four Corners Power Plant, a coal-burning power plant across the state line in northern New Mexico.

Nitrogen oxide is a generic term for a group of gases, including nitrogen dioxide, which, under the right conditions, can cause a reddish-brown layer of haze in the sky.

Excessive nitrogen oxide emissions raise a number of concerns for the Environmental Protection Agency, which blames them for the formation of ground-level ozone, serious respiratory problems, the formation of acid rain and obscuring the views in urban areas and national parks.

Air quality doesn’t recognize state boundaries, and, in the past, Colorado lawmakers, including Roberts and Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, have asked their New Mexican counterparts to help address the issue.

However, because the power plant sits on tribal land on the Navajo Indian Reservation, which holds sovereign nation status, the issue falls to such federal agencies as the EPA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a branch of the Department of the Interior.

Complicating things further, three separate EPA offices regulate the three geographical areas involved — New Mexico, Colorado and the Navajo Indian Reservation. New Mexico is in Region 7, Colorado is in Region 8, and the Navajo land falls in EPA Region 9 because much of its land is within Arizona’s state boundaries.

As Isgar points out, the issue is both complicated and hard to address.

“People in southwest Colorado have been frustrated for a long time,” he said. “We have a beautiful area, and they like to be able to see the area.”

Republican Rep. Scott Tipton has been frustrated by the brown cloud that obscures the view from his home in Cortez.

He wrote a letter calling for legal action from Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, pointing out that, just as New Mexico is downstream from Colorado and shouldn’t accept dirty river water, Colorado is upwind of New Mexico and shouldn’t accept New Mexico’s air pollution.

On March 17, Suthers and Tipton co-wrote letters to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and the EPA Region 9 Director Deborah Jordan. Both letters asked their recipients to use their authority to regulate the power plant’s emissions. Through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Salazar has authority to manage the tribal land where the plant is located.

Suthers communications director Mike Saccone says his office has yet to receive a response.

Adding to the tension is the proposal for a second power plant on Navajo tribal land, the Desert Rock Energy Project.

Opponents of the proposed plant worry that it will exacerbate the already poor air quality allegedly created by emissions from the Four Corners Power Plant, but the developers insist that it would be one of the cleanest coal-burning plants in the nation.

Recently, the Durango-based Western Environmental Law Center, filed a lawsuit asking the Bureau of Land Management to reconsider a recently approved transmission line needed for the plant because the impact of the project has yet to be fully assessed by federal agencies. This request was approved, sending the crucial transmission line back to the BLM and the BIA for a second look.

Matt Kenna, a lawyer who represents a number of environmental groups in Colorado and New Mexico and on the Navajo reservation, said this may prevent the Desert Rock plant from being built.

“There are a lot of roadblocks in its way,” Kenna said. “Between the economy and environmental issues, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that they’ll do it.”

In March, Gov. Bill Ritter’s office urged the EPA to reconsider its permit for construction of Desert Rock and called for increased emission regulation at the Four Corners Power Plant.

According to Paul Tourangeau, the director of Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division, Ritter’s office made that call after it was determined that the air in southwestern Colorado soon could exceed EPA ozone level standards.

Exceeding the mandate ozone levels of 75 parts per billion qualifies a geographical region as being in “nonattainment.”

“Northern New Mexico is poised to go into nonattainment for ozone,” Tourangeau said.

That means southwestern Colorado could be in nonattainment, as well.

“If an area of any state is declared to be in nonattainment with the federal health-base standard, that area then has an obligation to develop a plan to reduce emissions,” he said.

The Denver metro area has historically reached nonattainment ozone levels, especially during the summer. Steps to reduce emissions can include reducing automobile use and monitoring stationary emitters.

However, southwestern Colorado, if declared in nonattainment, could not effectively take such steps, since its biggest polluter, only 50 miles south of Durango, is jurisdictionally out of reach.

According to Touragneau, there is a healthy amount of communication among the two states and the tribe to try to address the issue.

Tipton hopes that the recent attention lawmakers have been paying to the issue will get the ball rolling on addressing the problem.

“I’m a citizen legislator, and I’d like to see actions rather than ongoing studies,” he said. “There’s no time like the present.”

Roberts has taken part in one of those studies, the Four Corners Air Quality Task Force. The task force consisted of federal and state land managers, environmental regulators, representatives of tribal nations and concerned citizens. Its members explored different ways to address air quality issues and identified options for policymakers, putting their recommendations into a report issued at the end of 2007.

“My concern is what is going to happen now that the recommendations have been made,” Roberts said.

After the final report, she got in touch with the different participants but was told that the task force was designed only to collect scientific background, not to create policy.

“What I was looking for was a prioritized list of steps to start taking,” she said. “It occurred to me that there was not enough conversation happening.”

So she teamed up with Isgar to start a direct dialogue with New Mexico legislators.

“There was a lot of work behind the scenes,” she said. “But ultimately the jurisdictional issues got in the way.”

She is glad to see the issue resurface, thanks to efforts by Ritter, Suthers and Tipton.

“Anything that we see that helps support looking at our air quality issues is great,” she said. “I just don’t want it to become a political football. We need to make good decisions about our health.”

Kathrine@coloradostatesman.com