Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
April / May 1999

 

Sierra Club Helps Fight Public Service

 

On July 27, 1998, an explosion interrupted Dianna and Jennings’ afternoon. A plume of soot from the Cherokee Power Plant behind their property was shooting out toxic ash.

"It was like Mt. St. Helens," said Dianna. "My neighbor called, yelled ‘public service’ and hung up." Jennings ran out-side to find it so dark she couldn’t see across the street.

Jennings said that explosions, in varying degrees of severity, happen once a week. "When that plant started operating, our lives became a nightmare," she said. "The noise is deafening."

She feels her complaints to Public Service were only partly addressed. According to Jennings, Public Service did spend $40,000 cleaning up neighborhood houses but wouldn’t respond to questions about why explosions kept happening, what to do in an emergency, or what health affects the ash had. The health department told Jennings that the plant was in compliance.

Shortly afterward, not knowing where to turn, Jennings called the Sierra Club. Her case was taken up by Hazardous Waste Chair Joan Seeman and Metro Air Chair Bill Myers.

"This case was a shocker," said Seeman. "When I looked into the plant’s records, I found that 250 tons of fugitive emissions were coming from the fly ash and coal handling facilities at the Cherokee Plant."

Myers calls the Jennings’ situation "tragic." He encouraged her to go to the Air Quality Control Commission in August 1998 where she presented her case. Seeman and Myers accompanied Jennings, where she showed a video her husband had taped during another episode. By the end of the startling presentation, they had the commission’s attention.

Like many older power plants across the country, the Cherokee plant is "grandfathered" in to be exempt from meeting some of the requirements that newer plants would. But instead of bringing the plant into compliance, Public Service’s plan has been to condemn properties and force nearby residents out of the Commerce City neighborhood. Instead of buying out the complainers, said Myers, "Public Service needs to properly operate and maintain its plants so that the benefits of reducing pollution are realized by Denver citizens."

On a brighter note, the efforts of activists and citizens like Jennings, Seeman and Myers, Public Service are beginning to make a difference. Public Service has taken a positive step toward cleaning up Denver’s air by outlining an emission reductions agreement under the Voluntary Emissions Reduction statute.

According to Public Service, the "voluntary" reductions would remove 25,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per year from Denver’s air and clear the air enough to allow citizens to see 18 miles further than they do today. The emissions reductions would be realized by converting the Arapahoe Power Plant to natural gas and putting some "end-of-the-pipe" controls on the Cherokee and Valmont power plants. In return, Public Service will not be subject to further state regulations.

Though Public Service is taking a step in the right direction, it does not lessen its responsibility to provide for the safety of its neighbors. Jennings still has not received an answer to her questions about emergency evacuation, and has not been allowed to see the Materials Safety Data Sheets that detail which hazardous substances are stored and used at the plant.

Seeing no improvement in sight, Jennings decided to sell the home that had been in the family since her grandfather farmed the land. "I want out: that’s the bottom line."

She said she won’t stop telling her story: "I’m just going to keep at this. If I have to stage a protest, I will." One thing is for sure: without the help of activists and citizens like these, companies like Public Service would have no reason to change.

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