The owners of a Benson-area power plant are promising to clean up more pollution than the federal government told them to - and at less cost.
The Arizona Electric Power Cooperative wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to accept its $30 million plan to reduce regional haze from its Apache Generating Station, instead of a $192 million plan the EPA ordered in November.
The 605-megawatt coal-fired plant operates in Cochise, about 30 miles east of Benson. Its customers include thousands of residents near Tucson.
EPA's cleanup plan for Apache targets regional haze clouding views at nine national parks and wilderness areas in Southern and Central Arizona and southwest New Mexico, including Saguaro National Park in the Tucson area, the Chiricahua Wilderness area in Cochise County and the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.
In separate actions, the EPA is also seeking to force two Northern Arizona Power Plants, Cholla and Coronado in Apache and Navajo counties, to reduce their emissions to improve visibility.
Working with U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat, the not-for-profit Arizona Electric Power Cooperative has persuaded EPA to review its existing decision. The EPA will consider the utility's new plan and issue another proposal, possibly by September, an EPA spokesman said this week.
EPA hasn't formally endorsed the proposal, but has conceded that the new plan could offer more benefits to the air than its decision. That decision was supposed to have required the best available technology to retrofit an existing power plant for pollution controls.
The environmentalist Sierra Club says it's reviewing the new proposal but has no comment yet. In the past, environmentalists said the plant's various pollutants are also linked to respiratory illnesses.
The Benson power cooperative's proposal calls for:
• Upgrading and modifying one of the plant's two coal-fired units to burn less-polluting natural gas.
• The remaining coal-burning unit would get "selective non-catalytic reduction" technology, in which plant operators inject a chemical into the power plant furnace to reduce emissions.
The EPA's plan had required "selective catalytic reduction," in which a catalyst bed, housed in a very large housing/ductwork unit, would convert polluting nitrogen oxide into more benign nitrogen and water vapor. The selective catalytic reduction equipment requires expensive construction, far more than the non-catalyst solution, the power co-op said.
• Upgrading scrubbers on the remaining coal-fired unit. Scrubbers remove sulfur dioxide and other sulfur byproducts from exhaust.
Owners of the power plant had warned that the EPA's proposal would have led to consumer rate increases, layoffs and possible eventual plant closure.
The new proposal reduces emissions more than the EPA's plan because the EPA's plan focused mainly on reducing nitrogen oxide emissions. But Apache's plan hits much harder at sulfur dioxide and particulate emissions, while not reducing nitrogen oxides as much as the EPA's, said Eric Hiser, Apache's attorney.
The cooperative considered converting both generating units to natural gas, but gas is more expensive, which would have raised its operating costs, Hiser said.
Environmental groups have pushed hard to reduce coal burning because coal is a much greater producer of heat-trapping greenhouse gases than is natural gas.
Barber helped arrange for a plant tour in March by Jared Blumenfeld, administrator of EPA's San Francisco regional office. "It's an important thing to fight regional haze and an important thing to get tourists and to get people to live here," Barber said, adding, "We can protect the environment and still protect jobs."
Arizona Electric Power Cooperative Inc. is a not-for-profit corporation that sells electricity to five Arizona electric co-ops, including Trico Electric Cooperative Inc., and a sixth in California. In total, AEPCO serves more than 147,000 residential, commercial, farming and industrial customers. Trico serves 38,000-plus customers in Tucson's northwest side, Marana, Corona de Tucson, Sahuarita, Green Valley, Three Points, Arivaca and Sasabe.
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