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Lamar coal plant faces possible civil penalties, customer revolt

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The news keeps getting worse for a coal-fired power plant in Lamar that was supposed to provide cheap electricity for southeast Colorado. Already a target of criticism for cost overruns, operational failures and pollution concerns, the project recently suffered a major setback in federal court that could subject the plant to hefty civil penalties -- as well as threats from disgruntled customers to take their business elsewhere.

Located just a few blocks from Lamar's business district and close to many residences, Lamar Light and Power's electric plant had operated on natural gas for years -- until LLP and the Arkansas River Power Authority decided in 2004 it would be cheaper to convert to coal and increase power generation to several surrounding towns. But as detailed in my 2010 feature "Black Out," the conversion was more costly than projected and left many locals feeling steamed -- about noise, pollution, breakdowns, and the health concerns associated with operating a coal plant next door.

The move also prompted legal challenges from Lamar residents partnered with WildEarth Guardians, a New Mexico-based environmental group. Last Friday, U.S. District Judge David Ebel ruled that the plant had violated provisions of the Clean Air Act for at least four years by failing to obtain proper federal clearances for a potential "major source" polluter and ordered a trial to determine what penalties ARPA and LLP could face. Although the ruling limited the plant's liability by finding that its current permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is proper, WildEarth spokesman Jeremy Nichols called the decision "a stunning rebuke" of the plant's operators.

"ARPA so far has seemed willing to go down with its coal plant, the consequences be damned," Nichols said. "It's unfortunate, given the opportunities they have at hand to move rural southeastern Colorado beyond fossil fuels."

Customers of the plant have already demonstrated a willingness to abandon ship, if other sources of power can be obtained. The towns of Trinidad and Raton, New Mexico, have dropped out of the consortium of communities that were supposed to purchase electricity from the Lamar plant, complaining about soaring costs and mismanagement. On a more local scale, individual business customers have grumbled about sky-high power rates and threatened to find a way off the grid.

According to this account in the Lamar Ledger, the operator of a local truck stop is considering installing wind turbines to cut down on his $15,000-a-month electric bill -- and "other major power purchasers in the area" are also looking at wind, a plentiful resource on the eastern plains.

No trial date has yet been set to consider civil penalties against the plant's operators, which could range as high as $37,500 a day for the period of violation. Another lawsuit by WildEarth, claiming that the plant has had numerous emission violations under its state permit, is pending.

More from our Environment archive: "Coal's future so bleak even energy execs starting to admit it."

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