Carbon Loading

Xcelís solution to rising energy prices includes a lot of coal. Is that a bad thing?

They watched and waited. Then this past summer, they decided to sue the state. "It appears to me there's selective enforcement going on," says Barber. "We're trying to send a message to regulators that they need to respect the process of law, even if someone's in office who doesn't like that process."

From her kitchen window, Helen Quintana can see the twin stacks of the Comanche station rising from the rolling prairie at the southeastern edge of Pueblo. A white plume of steam hovers over the plant like an errant cloud.

Extra carbs: A third unit will double the power 
generated by Xcel's Comanche coal plant in Pueblo.
Extra carbs: A third unit will double the power generated by Xcel's Comanche coal plant in Pueblo.

Within a short drive of the plant is a patchwork of wildly different neighborhoods -- farmland and new housing developments, an industrial zone that stretches to the old steel mill, cluttered trailer parks, stately cemeteries and modest, semi rural homes, some with yards big enough for horses, flanked by towering cottonwoods. Unlike Globeville or other industrial areas along the Front Range, this part of Pueblo doesn't fit the stereotypical notions of an "environmental justice" community, but locals say it's the place where heavy industry comes to do its dirty work. The area has been targeted for a new cement plant as well as a new boiler at Comanche.

Quintana has lived on LaSalle Road most of her life. She can remember when the road was gravel and it was unusual to see more than ten cars pass in a day; a local rancher drove cattle by her house to the stockyards. Now LaSalle is one of the busiest surface streets in the county, and Quintana dreads the clamor that construction of the new Comanche unit will bring.

"I'm tired of fighting the pollution," she says. "I cannot see the point of building a plant that is going to become obsolete."

At public meetings, she's complained to Xcel officials about mounds of coal dust sitting on the grounds of the power plant, but she says she's more concerned about the invisible pollution that the plant generates. Florencio Quintana, her husband of fifty years, died in 2003 of multiple myeloma, a blood disease that's been associated with both genetic and environmental factors.

"I can't prove anything about what caused it," she says. "But like I told the people at the last meeting, this electricity is going up north. The cement is going up north. Why do they pick Pueblo for the polluted industries? Because they can."

CCAWP's Barber notes that Pueblo already produces more than 80 percent of the state's mercury emissions. Comanche's new unit will increase the amount of mercury by around 125 pounds a year; the cement plant, if it proceeds, will add another 25 pounds. "Mercury is a major concern, but all the other pollutants are, too," she says.

The new unit will also make huge demands on the city's water -- five million gallons a day. Xcel convinced city leaders to annex the plant, giving their boilers access to the municipal water supply on an equal priority with residential customers. "Comanche was using a third of Pueblo's water," Barber says. "Now it will be using half -- as much as the rest of the whole town."

A slick brochure touts Xcel's water-conservation strategies, including its use of recycled water at its Cherokee station and an "innovative low-water-use cooling system" that will cut water use in half at Comanche. The company has "done better than some" at staging public forums about water and pollution issues but hasn't been terribly responsive to her group's concerns, Barber says: "We were allowed to ask questions, but I didn't get answers."

Still, regulators and government officials, rather than Xcel, have been the greatest source of frustration for the plant's opponents. "I talked to this guy from the EPA, and he said, ŒWell, you've got to do something at the grassroots level,'" says Quintana. "And I said, ŒNo, it's you guys that have to start doing something.' People need to start getting smart about alternative energy."

Xcel has long recognized the need to develop cost-effective power from innovative sources, Stutz says. The company estimates it will need to have 18 megawatts of solar power in place in two years to meet the mandates of Amendment 37, and the Comanche settlement places an even greater priority on the acquisition of more wind power and other renewables.

The company is also studying the feasibility of a "clean coal" plant in Colorado. There are already two plants in the country that use IGCC -- short for integrated gasification combined cycle -- technology to convert coal into a gas to make electricity, reducing emissions and making it easier to store the troublesome carbon dioxide. But the technology might still be too costly for use with western coal. While experts dicker over the commercial viability of alternatives, the power industry continues to bank heavily on what it knows, and that's conventional coal plants. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions, and all the attendant long-term costs they might entail, keep rising.

Environmentalists are often scorned as standing in the way of progress, but rapid advancement on the energy front can't come soon enough to suit Leslie Glustrom.

"I don't want to turn anyone's lights off," she says. "I just want to run 'em with that big ball in the sky."

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