By Alan Prendergast
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"Besides the health issues, there's just a lot of outrage," says Lamar resident Polly Munro. "How dare they do this to all of us without our say-so at all? And they're doing such a crummy job of it. People from outside are brought in to build this, and then they get to leave, and we're stuck with it."
The plant's backers maintain that its early operating glitches have been corrected and that the project will provide reliable and affordable power for the region for decades to come. "The plant will stabilize costs for ARPA members over the long term," says LLP superintendent Rick Rigel.
Rigel has described the local opposition as a very small but vocal minority. Yet the group has managed to gather more than 900 signatures on a petition protesting the plant, better than 10 percent of the town's residents. And Cliff Warren, his parents Shirley and Charles, and Verdell Howard, all longtime residents of Lamar, have joined forces with WildEarth Guardians and the University of Denver's Environmental Law Clinic to file a lawsuit against the plant operators under the Clean Air Act.
A little-used provision of the act allows citizens to challenge major polluters directly over alleged emission violations rather than wait for state and federal regulators to take action. WildEarth and the Lamar plaintiffs claim that ARPA failed to meet federal requirements for power plants before starting construction, and that the plant has logged more than a thousand violations of emissions standards since operations began. State health officials also recently initiated a "compliance advisory" — an informal enforcement process — informing Lamar Light and Power that the facility is exceeding its permit levels for nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulates. The plant could be subject to a fine of up to $15,000 a day for each violation.
Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, notes that e-mails produced in the litigation show Rigel himself expressing concern about nitrogen and particulate emissions that "are far, far exceeding expected levels," as one missive puts it.
"It's a smaller plant and a much less sophisticated utility," Nichols says. "I don't think they know what they've gotten into or how to get out of it. From day one, this thing has been nothing but trouble."
The Lamar plant is expected to generate a modest 43 megawatts of electricity at full operating capacity. It would take 33 such plants to match the output of Xcel's giant Comanche coal-fired plant on the outskirts of Pueblo. But the small-town squabble could have far-reaching consequences for state energy policy — and for other communities seeking more control over their own energy future.
A new state law, the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, requires utilities to reduce coal-related emissions, and Xcel recently unveiled a $1.3 billion plan to convert several of its geriatric coal units to natural gas or retrofit them with state-of-the-art emission controls over the next decade, cutting mercury and sulfur dioxide levels by as much as 85 percent. Yet while the rest of the state is scrambling to embrace cleaner technologies and anticipating tougher federal regulations for power-plant pollution, the economically battered communities of southeastern Colorado are heading in the other direction — back to the cheap, dirty power that coal provides.
As people in Lamar are finding out, there are hidden costs to a traditional coal plant, particularly one in the middle of town. "I know we need electricity," Cliff Warren says. "But when you start putting people's health at risk, I have a concern about that. I'm sorry, but I was here first."
Burning coal to generate electricity has long been a major bête noire among environmentalists. Aside from the vaporized mercury and other toxins produced by the process and the obscene amounts of water involved, coal plants churn out millions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide every year, accelerating the serious climate change many scientists expect the planet to undergo in the next few decades. In green circles, anything that slows the development of more coal plants is considered a good thing.
So it was with considerable fanfare that Governor Bill Ritter hailed the arrival on his desk of the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act this past April, calling it "a template for tomorrow that allows us to transform our energy portfolio, our economy and our environment by working strategically and collaboratively." As lawmakers and Xcel officials looked on approvingly, he signed the bill into law, advancing Colorado to the forefront of the race for clean energy — on paper, anyway.
The reality is somewhat different. Coal still accounts for almost half the power generation in the United States — more in most western states, including Colorado. While activists are groaning over the failure to pass climate legislation in Washington, King Coal has been roaring back with a vengeance. According to the Associated Press, more than thirty coal-fired plants have been built across the country since 2008 or are now under construction.
The driving force behind the coal revival is the fuel's relatively low cost. Coal prices have risen substantially in recent years — a short ton of Powder River Basin coal was commanding fifteen dollars on the open market recently, compared to six dollars in 2005 — and costly emission controls or so-called "clean coal" technology can hike the price much further. But a traditional, carbon-belching coal-burner is still considered a cheaper proposition than a plant reliant on the volatile natural gas market.