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It’s All About the “N”

November 10, 2011

FARMINGTON, N.M. - An effort is under way to get Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) to clean up nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) being emitted by the San Juan Generating Station. According to New Energy Economy, the coal-fired electric plant emits more than 8.5 million tons of carbon pollution and requires more than 9.3 billion gallons of clean water each year.

John Bucsher, chair of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter, says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has requested that PNM employ "selective catalytic reduction" (SCR) to reduce pollutants, as called for in the Clean Air Act. But PNM is resisting, he says.

"They don't really want to do it. They want to spend as little money as possible. Frequently, large companies feel that their primary role is to maximize profit for their investors."

The Sierra Club says installing these pollution controls will lower nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 percent, thus reducing health problems such as asthma, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, birth defects and infant mortality. He adds it will also make the Four Corners' panorama more majestic, through clear air, and that will attract tourists to visit and spend money in the local economy.

PNM Executive Director of Environmental Services Maureen Gannon says a study performed by an international engineering firm indicates a less-expensive technology would also meet federal standards.

"When you look at the visibility improvements with either of those technologies, there's very little change in terms of decibews."

A decibew is a visibility measurement, much as a decibel is an audio measurement.

It will be up to the EPA to decide which technology is installed at the coal-fired plant.

Bucsher says the utility claims the cost of using SCR technology will be a financial burden. He says PNM's cost estimate is exaggerated and the utility's resistance to installing SCR has to do with loss of profits.

"They went to court and said, 'This is too expensive. Our ratepayers and our shareholders can't afford it. There are cheaper technologies that we could deploy. They won't be as effective, but we think they'll be good enough.'"

According to Gannon, SCR installation would cost PNM, its shareholders and ratepayers $750 million or more. The Sierra Club points out that the EPA's cost estimate is $345 million, and PNM's share of that would be only $160 million, since the utility owns just 46 percent of the plant.

PNM would agree to install selective noncatalytic reduction (SNCR) at a cost of approximately $77 million, Gannon says, if the state's plan prevails. She says SNCR would cost about one-tenth as much as SCR.

Either plan will work, according to PNM Public Information Officer Don Brown.

"Both the state plan and the EPA plan address regional haze and meet federal standards."

The Western Environmental Law Center and Earthjustice filed the motion in federal court in October, on behalf of New Energy Economy, San Juan Citizens Alliance, National Park Conservation Association, Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment and the Sierra Club.

Beth Blakeman/Glen Gardner, Public News Service - NM