Navajo Nation supports alternate NGS emissions proposal

Power plant owners also back plan, Sierra Club drops out of working group after deciding new agreement no better than EPA proposal

The Navajo Generating Station burns locally mined coal, providing jobs and power for the Central Arizona Project and other services. In the process, it also produces some of the largest amounts of air pollution among power plants in the West. Submitted photo

The Navajo Generating Station burns locally mined coal, providing jobs and power for the Central Arizona Project and other services. In the process, it also produces some of the largest amounts of air pollution among power plants in the West. Submitted photo

WASHINGTON - On June 26, a stakeholder group that includes the Navajo Nation, signed on to an alternative proposal to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed rule to reduce emissions at the Navajo Generating Station (NGS).

The stakeholder working group included representatives from Salt River Project (SRP) on behalf of itself and the owners of NGS, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the Defense Fund, the Navajo Nation, the Gila River Indian community, the U.S. Department of Interior and Western Resource advocates.

On Feb. 5 the EPA issued a proposed Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART) rule for NGS that required the power plant's owners to install new technology to reduce emissions on all three units at NGS by 2018.

The EPA also proposed an alternative that would require the early installation of low nitrogen oxide burners in exchange for an extended schedule requiring installation of technology to reduce emissions, selective catalytic reduction (SCR), on one unit per year between 2021 and 2023.

SRP contends the cost of installing the technology would be $544 million and could exceed $1.1 billion if the additional equipment is also required at the plant to remove air-borne particles created by the emission reduction process.

The alternative proposed by the working group, called 'Better than BART' and submitted to the EPA on July 26, would have SRP shut down one unit at the power plant by January 1, 2020 and put in place reduction emission technology on the remaining units by 2030 if the LA Department of Power and Water and Nevada Energy exit in 2019 and if the Navajo Nation chooses not to exercise its option to purchase a portion of the plant's ownership shares.

The Los Angeles water agency and Nevada Energy own about one unit at NGS.

If the Navajo Nation does exercise its right to purchase a portion of the plant's ownership shares, the working group proposal requires nitrogen oxide emission reductions equivalent to the shutdown of one unit between 2020 and 2030. The owners would have to submit annual plans beginning in 2020 through the end of the lease describing operating scenarios to achieve greater emission reductions than the EPA's proposed rule.

Under both scenarios, the owners commit to cease operation of conventional coal-fired generation at NGS no later than Dec. 22, 2044.

Navajo Nation officials have said that NGS should maintain operations without closing or curtailing any units. But in response to the EPA proposed rule and to Nevada Energy's decision to exit in 2019, those officials said the alternative plan is a compromise by all parties.

"There is still much work to be done to maintain compliance with the Clean Air Act, the Regional Haze rule, and future rules while supporting the continued dedicated efforts of industry, the Navajo Nation and the EPA to balance air quality goals with economic prosperity," said Ben Shelly, Navajo Nation president. "Mitigation of job losses and impacts to the regional economy are still my concern."

Mike Hummel, chief power system executive at SRP, said the alternative proposal is the best path forward for its customers and the state of Arizona.

"Given the challenges associated with timelines specified in the proposed rule, the development of an alternative proposal was essential," Hummel said. "The working group proposal provides a path for the future operation of NGS that incorporates potential ownership changes and provides for a much needed extension to the schedule for installing SCRs at NGS.

But Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, disagrees. She said she was part of the working group with the understanding that the working group would produce something that was better than the EPA's proposal. When she realized that the proposal was headed in another direction, her group pulled out.

"[It became clear] that it was not going to be better than the best available retrofit technology, which was how we went into it understanding what [the proposal] was supposed to do," Bahr said. "It became clear they weren't going to and we withdrew from the technical working group and now that we've seen the proposal it is pretty clear that we were right."

While Bahr said the Sierra Club is pleased that SRP is recognizing that the pollution from NGS is a problem, she still sees some issues with the proposal.

"This proposal does not meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act," Bahr said. "We think that it is important that they clean up and do so in a timely manner because of the impacts on Grand Canyon, other national parks and wilderness areas, but also the impacts on the people who live near the plant."

She said the EPA will have to look at the proposal, too, in relation to the Clean Air Act. Bahr also said that one of disturbing things about the discussion about the pollution from the generating station is that the owners do not want to talk about public health.

"Nitrogen oxide emissions affect public health, they contribute to respiratory problems and obviously there are other pollutants as well," Bahr said. "But this is one of the biggest polluters we have in the state and one of the biggest in the west and so they need to make sure that they meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act and this proposal doesn't get us there."

And Bahr said that the enforceability of the proposal is in question and the path forward to the transition to clean renewable energy is not clear in the working group's proposal.

"They say, 'well, we're going to shut down a unit,' but not necessarily," Bahr said. "Everything in there, this will happen if this happens or this will happen if this happens and so what we're looking for is a clear path and something that is enforceable and we don't see that in this proposal."

The U.S. Department of the Interior had already made several commitments that are separate from the alternative the working group proposed. They include reducing or offsetting carbon emissions from Interior's share of NGS, pursuing the development of low-emission power projects to benefit Arizona tribes and mitigating the effects of the BART rule and other developments on the rising costs of Central Arizona Project's (CAP) water.

The working group said that those commitments were acceptable and did not impose additional requirements or costs to the NGS owners or to CAP.

Shelly also indicated that the EPA should continue to involve tribal governments as early as possible as co-managers in environmental protection especially when EPA's actions directly affect Indian country, and vowed to continue consulting with the EPA and submitting information as required for a full analysis of the Regional Haze rule.

"We are going to do everything we can to ensure that jobs are protected at NGS and the Kayenta Mine," Shelly said. "Our people depend on the jobs provided by the power plant and the mine, we must make sure they will still be able to put food on the table for their family in the years to come."

The public comment period is open until Oct. 4.

NGS employs around 528 people, 74 percent of whom are members of the Nation, and approximately 300 seasonal employees hired by the plant, 93 percent of those are Navajo. Revenues to the Nation in the form of royalties and taxes paid by the Kayenta Mine are approximately $45 million. The Kayenta Mine is also a major employer on the Navajo Nation, with 400 employees, 90 percent of whom are Navajo tribal citizens. Salary and benefits paid by the Kayenta Mine exceeded $51 million.

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