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Clearer Air in the Forecast for the Four Corners

December 16, 2011

FRUITLAND, N.M. - The Environmental Protection Agency today is to issue the first-ever national safeguards on emissions from coal power plants. The new regulations will affect the release of acid gases and toxic metals such as mercury, chromium and lead.

Perhaps the most familiar is mercury, a neurotoxin, says Dr. Robert Bernstein, president of the New Mexico chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

"It's been shown to cause difficulties with learning, difficulties with memory and lower IQs in kids."

Arizona Public Service (APS) operates the Four Corners Power Plant in northwest New Mexico. According to Environment America, it ranked 33rd highest among more than 450 mercury emitters in the nation. Ed Fox, APS chief sustainability officer, says his utility has presented a plan to the EPA to describe how it will bring the plant into compliance.

"We've proposed to close the older units - 1, 2 and 3 - before 2014, so they won't have to comply. The two bigger units, units 4 and 5, already have baghouses on it, and we have in our work plan injecting activated carbon, which will allow us to meet the standard."

Baghouses capture dust and filter the air. Fox says units 4 and 5 will comply by 2018 if the EPA accepts the APS plan.

Baghouses, activated carbon injection and scrubbers are technologies designed to clean smokestack emissions. Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, calls those moves by APS encouraging, but also points out that the plants are antiquated.

"Our concept is that it's time to get off of these large coal plants and start thinking about more electricity from abundant, clean renewable energy sources, which could work here if they were prioritized."

One of the arguments against regulations is the cost, Bernstein says, but he adds that we're going to pay either way - whether for safeguards or for the health consequences of toxic emissions.

Beth Blakeman, Public News Service - NM