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Utilities in state follow haze rule despite appeals

Pricey scrubbers still on hold by Emily Walkenhorst | May 6, 2017 at 2:43 a.m.

Arkansas utilities have moved forward with air quality control measures on power plants seven months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a federal plan for the state to implement the Regional Haze Rule.

But the utilities continue to challenge the plan in court.

The plan -- which intends to improve air quality via visibility requirements at national wilderness areas in Arkansas and Missouri -- took 18 months to finalize after an outcry that it would cost utilities billions and raise customers' bills to pay for it. Officials said it will take up to five years to complete robust changes to the state's energy sector.

The plan largely concerns utilities, because it requires emissions scrubbers and other technologies on the state's coal-fired power plants to reduce the amount of pollutants emitted from them. It also requires lower-sulfur fuels at natural gas and oil power-generating stations.

While no utilities have installed any controls outlined by the plan, officials with Entergy Arkansas have said the company is in the process of installing a low-nitrogen oxide burner on one of the coal-burning units at the utility's White Bluff power plant near Redfield.

The company is "moving forward on similar controls for each of the Independence units and the other White Bluff unit," as required by the plan, utility spokesman Kerri Case said in an email.

The utility is the principal owner of the plants, which are owned in part by the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. Officials with the cooperative estimated an $18 million cost to outfit each of the four units with low-nitrogen oxide burners.

Southwestern Electric Power Co. has ordered the parts to install a low-nitrogen oxide burner on the Flint Creek coal plant it co-owns with the cooperative in Gentry. Southwestern Electric spokesman Peter Main did not respond to a question of how much it would cost the utility.

As of last month, the utilities -- at least for the next 90 days -- don't have to do anything.

On April 25, the EPA issued a 90-day partial stay of the federal implementation plan to reconsider two major parts: the installation of burners to control nitrogen oxide and the installation of sulfur-dioxide scrubbers. Officials estimate the burners will cost utilities tens of millions of dollars, and the scrubbers as much as $2 billion, the cost of which would be passed along to customers on their utility bills.

Other aspects of the plan, such as switching to low-sulfur fuel at natural gas and oil power plants, remain in place.

The Regional Haze Rule is the result of requirements passed by Congress in the 1990s to implement parts of the Clean Air Act. It sets requirements for visibility at 156 national wildlife areas across the country and allows the EPA to require emissions reductions at industrial facilities that emit chemicals -- such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide -- and contribute to haze.

Arkansas must work to improve visibility at the Caney Creek and Upper Buffalo National River wilderness areas in Arkansas and the Hercules-Glades Wilderness area and the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri through 2064.

Opponents of the plan have criticized its cost to utilities and customers.

Proponents have said it will reduce the amount of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide in the air, which can contribute to or exacerbate cardiovascular diseases.

In response to the EPA's proposed federal implementation plan regarding regional haze in 2015, Entergy Arkansas proposed closing its 1,700-megawatt White Bluff power plant just outside Redfield. The EPA did not consider that proposal in its final implementation plan, which is being challenged in court.

State officials argue that the four wilderness areas are already meeting the first compliance period's requirements.

The EPA's partial stay was the latest movement on the plan, which has been challenged in courts and at the federal level since it was finalized in September and effective in October.

The EPA, now under the leadership of Scott Pruitt and a Republican presidential administration, announced the stay the same month it proposed amending its federal implementation plan for regional haze in Montana to alter nitrogen oxide emissions limits, and withdrew the provisions of the federal plan that applied to a coal-fired power plant in Arizona.

Before the partial stay, in March, all of the parties that had petitioned the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had asked to stay their own petitions so they could negotiate a settlement. Those parties include the state, Entergy, the Arkansas Electric Cooperative, the Energy and Environmental Alliance, the Arkansas Affordable Energy Coalition and Domtar, which has a paper mill in Ashdown. That petition was granted, temporarily halting the legal challenges in the 8th Circuit until June 9.

The state and utility groups have asked the EPA to allow the state to issue its own plan. The state produced a plan in 2012, but the EPA partially rejected it and the state never submitted a new one.

The Sierra Club, which sued the EPA in 2014 for not issuing a federal plan for regional haze and subsequently prompted the plan now in place, has argued that the state can hold itself to a higher air quality standard and shouldn't delay any part of the federal plan, attorney Tony Mendoza said.

"As of today, we remain disappointed that they haven't cleaned up any of their coal plants," Mendoza said.

Entergy Arkansas has pushed to have the Independence coal plant to be removed from the plan because it was built too late to be required for the first phase of compliance with regional haze. The EPA had argued the plant could reasonably be included because of its size and contribution to nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide in Arkansas.

"It is too early for us to predict the final outcome, though [Entergy Arkansas Inc.] is optimistic that the State will be able to provide EPA with an acceptable replacement state plan in the near term," Case wrote in her email.

Utilities have 18 months from last October to install low-nitrogen oxide burners and five years from last October to install the more-expensive scrubbers that reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.

While utilities are moving forward on nitrogen oxide-reducing equipment, they are waiting on the sulfur dioxide scrubbers until a decision is made on how quickly they need to be installed or on what facilities.

"I think it's prudent for us to find out what the legal decision is going to be before making that sort of financial commitment," said Sandra Byrd, a spokesman with the Arkansas Electric Cooperative.

Stuart Spencer, associate director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's office of air quality, said utilities need to be able to plan shutdowns so that multiple plants aren't shut down at the same time, and he said a longer window than 18 months could help ensure that.

"There are so many moving parts," Spencer said. "I think the important thing to note is that everybody's talking. We're working closely with the [EPA] region and with the facilities right now and with the stakeholders in general."

Metro on 05/06/2017

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