Peak & Prairie
October / November 1999
Landmark Public Service Pollution Reduction Agreement Will Increase Visibility in Denver
by Bill Myers, Sierra Club Denver Metro Air Quality Chair
Combined efforts by Sierra Club members and other local organizations helped finalize a landmark legal agreement with Public Service Company of Colorado to reduce sulfur pollution in Denver by 25,000 tons, costing the average electricity consumer about 70 cents each month for 15 years. This means Denverites will be able to see further with less of a brown cloud—10 miles further on poor air quality days, about 18 miles further on average air quality days, and more than 75 miles further on Denver's best days. As an added benefit, customers who get all of their power from WindSource will NOT be charged this extra expense.
In December 1994, Sierra Club's Denver Metro Air Quality Chair Bill Myers challenged Public Service to eliminate pollution from its metropolitan coal-fired power plants by switching its fuel to natural gas. Such a solution would cost consumers 80 cents monthly, would eliminate more than 37,000 tons of sulfate pollution and allow people to see more than 14 miles (on the worst visibility days) and more than 100 miles (on the best visibility days).
Not only did Public Service Company resist any pollution control solution then, its chief environmental engineer, Mark Fox, indicated that it was not responsible for any part of Denver's notorious “brown cloud.”
Persistent pressure from Sierra Club members and other environmental organizations helped encourage Public Service Company to clean up its power plants. With the strong technical expertise of the Land & Water Fund's Energy Project, the Regional Air Quality Council's presence showing that over 87 percent of the sulfate pollution from industrial sources came directly from Public Service's stacks, and the public's strong desire for cleaner air, the tide began to turn.
In fall 1997 Public Service Company announced that it would reduce sulfur power plant pollution from its metro power plants by 70 percent. This reduction would maintain coal as the fuel source in its two biggest plants—Cherokee and Valmont—but change the smaller Arapahoe power plant to natural gas. Public Service sought special legislation in the 1998 legislative session that would protect its power plants from further state regulation, if it voluntarily reduced its emissions below federal requirements.
This proposal was not the ideal solution. It was, however, one of the most significant locally initiated positive steps for air quality in metropolitan Denver in decades. The Sierra Club endorsed the legislation to make this voluntary emission reduction possible, and Governor Romer signed the legislation in 1998.
From that point, the Voluntary Emissions Reduction Agreement was presented to the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission in August 1998 for its approval. The AQCC approved it.
Then the proposal went to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The PUC had to decide whether, and how, Public Service Company could charge customers for this $210 million investment. More than 20 parties entered into a contested hearing process arguing that a 70-cent per month charge passed along to customers would be anti-competitive. Three environmental groups, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Land & Water Fund of the Rockies, intervened to improve Denver's air. Ultimately, a one-week hearing took place in May 1999 before an administrative law judge. On the verge of his decision, the parties reached a landmark legal agreement to authorize the charges.
Hopefully, Public Service will also see the benefit in reducing its pollution at the Craig Power Plant. Pollution reductions there will help improve visibility in our national park areas. (See Less Haze — Coming to a National Park Near You???)
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