Sierra Club threatens city with lawsuit over coal



The Sierra Club threatened to sue the city Monday, alleging changes to its Martin Drake and Ray D. Nixon power plants over the last 25 years for pollution controls were done in violation of government requirements.

Colorado Springs Utilities Drake
  • Drake Power Plant: Sierra Club wants it gone.

The threat comes two days before the City Council, sitting as the Utilities Board, will revisit a decision to postpone until 2013 a study of decommissioning the downtown Drake Power Plant. The board also will discuss its prior decision to move forward with Neumann Systems Group emissions control technology. Some members of the board consider the technology "unproven," although state environmental officials and other studies have validated its effectiveness.

In a news release, the Sierra Club alleges the city has violated the Clean Air Act by failing to get proper permits for 37 projects from 1987 to 2011 "that would have required the plants to meet industry standards that comply with modern pollution control laws."

The operation of the 50-year old Martin Drake and the 32-year old Ray Nixon coal plants without modern pollution controls constitutes a serious violation of federal law and a menace to public health. Colorado Springs Utilities faces enormous capital costs to bring the plants into compliance, and the utility may also be required to pay severe penalties for its past and on-going violations of the Clean Air Act.

Sierra Club organizer Bryce Carter also says in the release that alterations were made without regard to federal law and he again refers to the Neumann technology as unproven.

The Sierra Club sent a 60-day “notice of intent to sue” saying it's ready to force the city to comply with Clean Air Act. The release also lists the amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury the plants emit.

“Colorado Springs Utilities has irresponsibly put public health and the local economy at risk. Their violation of the Clean Air Act, the potential for regional nonattainment status, and their embrace of near certain financial risk to pursue experimental technologies without proper alternative research demonstrates reckless management by CSU,” said Carter. “This legal notice will help bring public accountability to their actions.”

But Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman has said previously that Drake has an excellent compliance record for emissions. He wrote this in a June e-mail in response to our questions:

Over the last seven years, the plant has been inspected on five occasions by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for permit compliance with no violations. In addition, we are required to report any excess visible emissions (opacity) on a quarterly basis, and over the last seven years the plant has achieved a 99.9989% compliance record with visible emissions standards, including continuous compliance since October, 2008.

And CSU prepared this statement after the environmental group sent out its press release warning of its lawsuit:

The Sierra Club has filed similar notices with many coal-fired power plants across the nation over the past few years. The notice to each utility alleges that the projects at a power plant have increased pollution. Colorado Springs Utilities has been diligent to evaluate all projects at Drake and Nixon and believe the plants are in compliance with all regulations.

Utilities has gone beyond the letter of the law, which requires no pollution increases, and continues to reduce emissions. For example, particulate emissions have been reduced by over 99 percent, and nitrogen oxide emissions have been reduced by over 50 percent with the addition of pollution controls. Additional planned pollution controls will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions over 90 percent.

Of course, the Sierra Club is timing its demands to coincide with the board meeting and could be said to be in league with Mayor Steve Bach, who wants Drake cleared out of the downtown area to make way for a sports stadium, or another big project that developers would surely love.

The Sierra Club sued the city several years ago alleging violations of the Clean Water Act due to sewage spills in Fountain Creek. The case went to trial in U.S. District Court, Denver, in 2008. Ultimately, the city was ordered to pay a fine of $35,000. Of course, the attorney fees cost ratepayers many times that amount.

The Sierra Club has recently become so obsessed with closing down coal plants that it used money donated by a polluter to carry out its campaign.

Here's City Council President Pro Tem Jan Martin's take: "This isn't the first lawsuit like this they've filed. I'm aware they've been filing suits in other cities to get rid of coal plants. From my perspective, I will always continue to make decisions on what's best for our community and not be threatened by lawsuits."

Something else to think about: Drake and Nixon together account for about 75 percent of the city's energy supply. There's no estimate available for how much electric rates would go up if the city suddenly decided, in response to the Sierra Club's demands, to shut down its coal generators and either purchase power or build natural gas, which burn 50 percent cleaner than coal, but still emit pollutants.

Fact it, Utilities gets its marching orders from its customers, who have repeatedly through surveys told the city their two top concerns are cost and reliability. Environmental considerations are growing, but so far haven't overtaken the first two.

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