Black out: Lamar gets steamed over a troubled coal plant -- right in the middle of town
Cliff Warren is a man who minds his own business. That's what he was doing around 1 a.m. one night in July last year, the night of the Big Incident. Fact is, he was snoozing in his bedroom in Lamar, a flat farm town of 8,900 people 200 miles southeast of Denver.
The problem, he says, was that the folks over at Lamar Light and Power weren't minding their business. One moment he's fast asleep, the next he's upright in bed, startled and confused, clutching his head and wondering if the roar in his ears is the result of an explosion outside or something worse.
"It sounded like a jet plane just went through my house," he remembers. "I thought I was dreaming. My head was going nuts."
Warren looked outside. No flames, just that ear-splitting noise. Furious, he threw on some clothes and went to check on the one piece of machinery in Lamar capable of making such a racket: the new coal-fired power plant, located two blocks from Warren's house and just three blocks from the town's main drag.
Other people had the same idea. Before long, a small crowd of alarmed, panicky or simply angry residents had gathered outside the plant's fence, cursing the infernal noise and demanding to know what was going on. The plant employees running around didn't seem much calmer, nor did they seem inclined to stop and chat.
"We kept trying to get answers," Warren says. "Do we evacuate or not? Everybody's scared to death, not knowing what to do. I called 911, just so we could get an officer there and get some answers. But no officer responded to the scene at all."
A gate abruptly slid open; Warren considered it an invitation to go on in. He and another man caught up with one of the plant workers for a ten-second discussion. "He said, 'We're trying to get it under control,'" Warren recalls. "Next thing we know, we're being pushed out of there by three guys."
Warren spotted two city police officers, a state trooper and a Prowers County sheriff's deputy parked a block away. He walked over to ask why they hadn't responded to his call about the plant.
One of them shook his head. "We're not going down there," he said, as if the situation demanded an elite unit with high-tech gear, well beyond the scope of local law enforcement.
The noise dissipated. So did the crowd. Lamar Light and Power officials would later explain that the plant, which had first gone online two months earlier and was still in a start-up stage, had "tripped" unexpectedly. The roar was simply the venting of steam through a pressure-relief valve, which would require further modifications to reduce the noise.
Yet for some locals, the incident was truly a wake-up call. There would be many more late-night disturbances related to the relief valve; while the plant superintendent insists the problem is now solved, residents say hardly a week goes by without at least one noisy eruption. They complain that the plant hisses and pops, booms and bangs, and radiates a steady, annoying hum.
At one point, Warren borrowed a decibel reader from a friend and tried to gauge the noise level. The device registered 116 decibels just beyond the fence line and 86 decibels at his house — well in excess of permitted limits. He tried to file a noise complaint with the Lamar Police Department, but he says the officer was uncertain how to proceed, since the alleged violator is a municipal utility that boasts of being "publicly owned since 1920."
"It's not just the noise," Warren adds. "We've got clean-air issues, and that's serious. I have asthma, and I'm concerned how it's going to be down the line and whether my grandkids can even visit me here safely."
In fact, the sheer noise of having a coal plant in their back yard is probably one of the lesser concerns raised by Lamar residents over the past two years. They talk about pungent, eye-stinging odors wafting from the facility, piles of coal ash harried by the wind, and soot on their cars and houses; about fire trucks responding to a "combustion problem" in the 110-car coal train that unloads at the plant every couple of weeks; about construction and engineering issues that have doubled the estimated cost to build the plant, from an initial projection of $66 million to a figure somewhere between $122 million and $140 million; about the numerous toxic emissions, including mercury, selenium, dioxin and hydrochloric acid, that are associated with coal-fired plants.
Most of all, they wonder how the decision was made by public agencies to convert the town's aging power source, which for thirty years used natural gas to generate electricity, into a coal-burner — without locals having any real say about the matter. The deal for the Lamar Repowering Project was struck between Lamar Light and Power (LLP), which owns and operates the facility, and the Arkansas River Power Authority, which issued bonds to finance the conversion and plans to funnel power from it to Lamar and five other southern Colorado towns served by ARPA. It had the blessing of city officials, but no public vote.
"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.
A surge in gas prices a decade ago prompted Lamar Light and Power to shut down its gas-fired plant, built in 1972. For a time, it was actually cheaper for the company to buy electricity from the grid than produce its own. But as the price of those contracts began to rise, too, LLP and its partner ARPA — a consortium of southern Colorado communities, including Holly, Springfield, Trinidad, La Junta, Las Animas and Lamar — began to search for new power sources they could control.
One resource, widely available and largely untapped on the eastern plains, is wind. LLP and ARPA built a small wind farm a few miles south of town, consisting of four turbines generating 1.5 megawatts of electricity each: enough energy to meet about 15 percent of the town's demand. The project was a stunning success, prompting calls for more wind power. But the established wisdom of the power industry holds that wind is too unreliable for base power generation and must always be backed up by some kind of fossil-fuel system.
To the guiding lights at ARPA and the Lamar Utilities Board, which oversees Lamar Light and Power, that meant coal. In 2004, ARPA informed its members of plans to "repower" the Lamar plant by retooling an existing steam turbine and adding a second turbine and a coal-fired boiler. The conversion to coal was estimated to cost between $61 million and $66 million and would provide what ARPA described as "competitively priced and reliable baseload power" for the communities involved.
But in some quarters, the plan was greeted with skepticism and trepidation. One surprising dissent came from Leon Sparks, who'd worked for Lamar Light and Power for 45 years, the last fifteen as the plant superintendent. Sparks felt so strongly that the conversion was a mistake that he wrote letters to the editor and even took out an ad in the local paper protesting the move.
"My biggest concern was that they were going to put it right in town," say Sparks. "I didn't think it was right to put a noisy coal plant, with rail cars and the rest, in the middle of Lamar."
Before he retired, in 2003, Sparks had sampled possible locations for additional wind turbines in LLP's 157-square-mile service area. He believes the area has sufficient wind for a far-flung network of turbines that would overcome the standard objections about wind being an intermittent power source. "Out here, the wind is blowing somewhere all the time," he explains. "I thought with more wind and gas, we could keep the prices down and have a clean plant. But when I left, nothing additional was done. Every effort was put into the coal plant."
The challenge of converting the old gas plant proved to be more daunting than expected. Hikes in the price of copper, concrete and steel sent the raw-materials cost soaring; competing for qualified contractors with Xcel's expansion of the Comanche plant boosted wages and labor expenses. Technical difficulties and what Rigel calls "design issues" resulted in significant delays as workers struggled to modify or replace pricey equipment. Projected to be up and operating 22 months after groundbreaking, the plant took more than three years to complete, forcing ARPA to buy more power on the open market than it anticipated.
E-mails between plant officials and contractors produced in the citizen lawsuit show a remarkable degree of bickering and blame-shifting — over delays, unpaid bills and work that was started and stopped repeatedly as technological and scheduling problems arose. "I again request a basic organizational chart and project schedule," an exasperated point man from General Electric wrote to an ARPA manager last fall. "This project continues in delay! This is at significant cost to your organization."
Even an admiring appraisal in Power magazine, which conveyed its Marmaduke Award for creative problem-solving to the Lamar Repowering Project, contained some caveats about the engineering involved. "The complexity of the integrated steam turbines makes the design and operation of this plant more complicated than for a standard steam plant," the writer observed.
The cost overruns prompted at least one member of ARPA to seek a way out of the deal. The city of Raton, New Mexico, a member since 1979, had approved the initial $66 million bond offering — but balked after ARPA requested an additional $10 million, then another $18 million. Two years ago Raton filed a federal lawsuit against ARPA, stating its reluctance to take on more debt and complaining that the cost per kilowatt hour generated by the plant would be well above what had been represented. By 2007, the suit alleged, ARPA's cost estimate had swollen to $110 million, and at a meeting with city officials, "ARPA admitted substantial mistakes related to the Project concerning, for example, silo issues, coal handling, and rail issues."
Under the terms of a settlement reached earlier this year, Raton will drop out of ARPA and will look elsewhere for its power needs. Other members have been dunned for "prepayments" of power and are facing rate increases to defray the costs resulting from the plant delays.
"If anything could go wrong, it did go wrong," ARPA board president Bob Freidenberger explained to the Trinidad city council a few months ago.
In Lamar, complaints about the plant tended to be less abstract than carping about design flaws and rate increases. Flanked by houses and a rail line, the plant is a Rube Goldberg-like network of storage domes, steeply pitched conveyor systems, a giant boiler and turbines; part of it actually straddles Maple Street, the throughway to Riverside Cemetery. The stark presence of the thing — from the many disturbances of its drawn-out construction period to the bi-weekly clatter of the long coal trains ambling into town, to the booms and bangs and incessant hum and bursts of ammoniac smells — is inescapable. Other cities could break from ARPA, but the citizens of Lamar could not get a divorce from the plant.
Lamar Light and Power hosted a public meeting at the town's Cow Palace early in the process to explain the plan, but dissent at that point was muted. "They put on a dog-and-pony show, and everything was going to be wonderful, according to them," recalls Verdell Howard. "At that point, most of us had not done much research. A couple of people did object, but it looked like it was already a done deal."
Howard was active in a grassroots group called Concerned Citizens of Lamar that had managed to amend the city charter in order to thwart a campaign to bring a private prison to town. One provision of the charter, she knew, stated that the city couldn't sell, lease or otherwise dispose of any public utility without a public vote. Yet, under the terms of the repowering agreement, LLP had committed existing facilities to ARPA for the next forty years, as well as vacant land for construction of the coal storage domes and other equipment, and ARPA had issued bonds — all without any vote of the citizens.
"If they're going to issue bonds to raise the kind of money this project is going to cost, you're damn right I want to vote on it," says Lamar resident Wayne Stokke. "I don't think you can find too many places in the United State where the people didn't have a chance to vote on something like this."
Stokke came to Lamar 32 years ago as a high-school principal. In some circles, he's still considered a newcomer, "a snot-nosed educator who doesn't know anything," he says. Years ago, he got involved in efforts to do something about the high rate of respiratory problems among children and the elderly in the area, which has been blamed on the dusty feedlots surrounding the town, only to have a local feedlot operator tell him that the air was "green."
"He was referring to money — his money," Stokke recalls. "And we're going to add coal dust to this? What are we doing?"
Attorneys for LLP contend that the "dedication" of city-owned resources to ARPA, which was approved by a resolution signed by Lamar's mayor, isn't a violation of the city charter. A federal magistrate recently dismissed the we-didn't-get-to-vote claim from the citizen lawsuit, ruling that it properly belonged in state court. According to the legal team representing Howard and the Warrens, no decision has been made yet about whether the charter issue will be pursued in addition to the Clean Air Act claims.
"There's always a little bit of a disconnect between what the legal claims are in a case like this and what it's about from the perspective of people living in the shadow of a coal-fired power plant," says Michael Harris, director of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law's environmental-law clinic. "But the case is still about building a coal-fired plant in the middle of Lamar, less than a mile from five schools."
Even without the charter issue, Stokke, Howard and others opposing the plant have had plenty of work to do. Shirley Warren, Cliff's mother, has snapped pictures of ominous discharges from the stack and piles of fly ash on the property that seem ill-contained. "The wind blows, and where the ash goes, nobody knows," she says.
Rigel acknowledges that the plant has had an occasional "opacity incident," in which fugitive ash escapes the premises, but says such incidents are rare. ARPA assured residents that coal dust would be strictly contained. The company invested in elaborate systems to convey the crushed coal snugly to the boiler, as well as equipment designed to minimize the sulfur and particulates emitted by the plant.
Shirley Warren isn't convinced the systems work as well as the company claims. "We have odors so bad it burns your nose and throat," she says. "We've found black particles covering our cars. Every time somebody calls me, I'm over there taking pictures. The steam and smoke has been so thick sometimes that it's like driving through a London fog."
A few months ago, Shirley's husband, Charles, began knocking on doors and gathering signatures for a petition to send to Governor Ritter, protesting the plant. "The majority of people I met were against it," he says. "They'd say, 'I didn't vote for the thing.' But quite a few of them, especially if they worked for the city, wouldn't sign the petition. They were afraid of repercussions."
One store owner who'd let the Warrens leave a petition there soon called to ask that it be removed; plant workers were threatening to boycott his business. A city employee told Charles Warren, "You guys are costing us an awful lot of money." But the 900-plus signatures collected demonstrated that "you guys" consisted of more than the four or five disgruntled citizens whom plant officials claim are the only real local opposition to their project.
Civic leaders in Lamar tend to promote the plant as a source of jobs and industry that the town badly needs. The local economy has been reeling since the 2006 collapse of bus manufacturer Neoplan. But the plant provides only a few dozen jobs, and Angela Warren, Cliff's sister, contends that a gritty coal boiler looming over the retail district isn't the sort of draw that's going to fill vacant storefronts. The town recently opened a new baseball field and hosted a regional tournament, in the hopes of building tourism and the local motel business. But feedback from the visitors wasn't encouraging.
"They had nothing but bad comments about the coal plant," Angela says, "and how Lamar wasn't an attractive city."
Wind power helped to present one kind of image for Lamar, an image that Lamar Light and Power likes to cultivate; Rick Rigel's business card has a wind turbine on it, and the utility's website doesn't even mention the word "coal" in its description of the Lamar Repowering Project. But the reality is a future dependent on coal that Angela, for one, isn't willing to accept for her four children.
"It isn't something I want to have my kids around," she says. "That's our biggest issue. Just like the companies that had salmonella in their eggs, these people should be held responsible for what they put into the air."
After doing some research on the Internet, Shirley Warren decided to contact WildEarth Guardians to see if the Santa Fe-based environmental group could help the disaffected locals mount a legal challenge to the coal plant.
Jeremy Nichols says WildEarth was thrilled to get involved. Most "citizen" lawsuits under the Clean Air Act — including two cases WildEarth brought against Xcel's Comanche and Cherokee plants, both approaching resolution — are essentially initiated by public interest groups, not local residents. "A lot of times we do work with communities, but it's not the driving factor of why we engage," he notes. "The difference here is that we were approached by the community, not the other way around. It doesn't get any better than this."
The primary claim of the lawsuit is that LLP and ARPA failed to obtain what's known as a MACT determination, short for "maximum achievable control technology," before construction of the plant began. Federal law requires that fossil-fuel plants generating 25 megawatts or more, like other major sources of pollution, must demonstrate that they are using the required technology to control emissions.
The plant's lawyers have argued that the MACT requirement doesn't apply in their case because in 2005, during the general rollback of environmental protections under the Bush administration, the EPA suspended the requirement for power plants. However, a federal appeals court upheld the MACT regulations three years later, and WildEarth contends that ARPA should not have proceeded with the plant without going through the review process.
ARPA also insists that the plant isn't a "major source" of pollution under the EPA's rules. Although its construction permit application states that it will be emitting more than ten tons a year of hydrochloric acid, one of the most prevalent hazardous pollutants from coal combustion — an amount that's over the threshold for what constitutes a major source — the company now says that the figure was overstated and that stack testing shows much lower emission levels.
WildEarth's attorneys counter that the plant has been using coal with "anomalously low chlorine content" in its tests. Even if the company screwed up its application, they argue, it can't use the tests to escape being designated as a major pollution source. "The federal law requires that you obtain your MACT determination before you construct," says DU's Harris. "There's no leeway for building the thing and then deciding what you're going to do with it."
The regulatory agency with direct oversight of the plant is the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which is supposed to determine on a case-by-case basis if power plants in the state must meet MACT requirements. A spokesman for the agency's air-pollution control division declined to comment on the Lamar plant's MACT status or the current "compliance advisory" discussions with plant officials, saying that the process is a confidential enforcement action.
According to Nichols, the CDPHE has a history of reaching informal resolutions with utilities over violations rather than engaging in aggressive enforcement actions. "They partner with polluters," he says. "They're making motions, but we're looking for accountability."
That's the reason for the lawsuit. "These types of citizen enforcement actions don't happen that much anymore," Harris adds. "They're not easy to do. But the state isn't doing anything about it. Cherokee, Comanche, and now Lamar — they all have violations, and there haven't been any enforcement actions.
"Litigation is not an inexpensive proposition, but we felt we really needed to do this. If they're just going to send out compliance advisory letters and meet with them behind closed doors, that's not going to get us clean air."
That the Lamar plant has been fouling the skies in excess of what its permits allow is undisputed; the real question is how dirty it's been and whether continuing corrective actions will fix the problem. Preliminary tests last fall showed unexpectedly high particulate emissions; if the rate persisted when the plant was operating at full capacity, it would be spewing double the level its permit allows.
"The emissions of condensable particulate matter are far, far exceeding expected levels," Rigel wrote in an e-mail to a contractor, "and will constitute violation in terms of both mass emissions (tons per year) and the federal standard of total emissions."
In another e-mail last February, Rigel expressed "growing concern" over the plant's excessive nitrogen oxide emissions, which operators tried unsuccessfully to control by injecting more ammonia into the system. "We cannot continue to operate knowingly exceeding the NOx requirements as we are now," he wrote. "We must either reduce NOx very quickly or we will be forced to come off-line."
Based on data that ARPA is required to report to the EPA, Nichols believes the Lamar plant has violated emissions standards repeatedly since it commenced operations last year. A July letter from Nichols to Rigel and other plant operators, threatening a second lawsuit, asserts more than a thousand violations of the Clean Air Act, including a twelve-month output of NOx emissions that's almost triple what the permit allows, double the annual sodium dioxide limit, and particulate emissions well in excess of what's considered the "best available control technology" emission rate.
Rigel responds that Nichols is citing "replacement numbers" entered into the EPA database, "which are typically much higher than one would expect from actual test results." The numbers have recently been updated, he adds, with results from stack testing. "We are confident that if [state health officials] find exceedances, they will be vastly fewer than WildEarth Guardians alleges," he says.
Nichols is unimpressed. "When Rick says things like, 'We cannot continue to operate knowingly exceeding the NOx requirements as we are now,' we can't help but reach the conclusion that Lamar is covering up violations," he says. "That, or they failed to monitor and report their emissions correctly. Either way, something is seriously wrong at this plant."
He notes that the emissions data ARPA submitted to the state also shows ongoing violations of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide limits — and that the plant's air-monitoring systems were frequently not operating.
"That's like driving a car without a speedometer and claiming that you were complying with the speed limit at all times," Nichols says. "They seem completely incapable of ensuring that this plant protects air quality at all times, which is intolerable."
Nichols envisions a day of reckoning when coal plants will be held accountable for their actual environmental toll. As he sees it, the investment that ARPA's members have made in their new power source has to be weighed against what it's going to cost them in a few years to bring it into compliance with tougher regulations and possible carbon taxes. "The liability for burning coal is going to become too great," he says. "I hope Lamar will recognize that this is a wagon they need to get off."
Colorado's own effort to rein in coal plants through legislation is a step in that direction, but hardly a revolutionary one. Xcel will spend less money on its conversion project than it would meeting emissions standards if it left all its coal plants in place. Coal interests have charged that the clean-air bill is actually a giveaway to the natural-gas industry and a windfall for Xcel, which plans to build its own gas plants and pass many of its costs on to consumers (see story, page 18).
Small, publicly owned utilities like Lamar's are in a different situation. Without stronger economic incentives for clean-energy alternatives — and natural gas is hardly "clean," except in comparison to coal — they have few options. Many are stuck riding the coal train until regulators or their own citizens stop them.
Recently, Cliff Warren was eyeing the grime on the sides of his house. He wanted to do something about it, but he also wanted to enjoy the sudden spell of peace that had descended on his neighborhood. For some unknown reason — cleaning, maintenance, testing, something — the power plant was strangely quiet.
"The last two days have been awesome," he says. "I'm ready to fire up the power washer and wash my house, but I don't want the noise."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.