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Cleaner Air in the Four Corners' Forecast

December 20, 2011

PHOENIX - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is issuing the first-ever national safeguards on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Arizona Public Service (APS) operates the Four Corners Power Plant in northwest New Mexico, and according to Environment America, Four Corners ranks 33rd highest among more than 450 mercury emitters in the nation.

APS Chief Sustainability Officer Ed Fox says his utility has presented a plan to the EPA describing how it will bring the plant into compliance.

"We've proposed to close the older units - one, two, and three - before 2014, so they won't have to comply. And the two bigger units, units four and five, already have baghouses on 'em, 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 four and five will comply by 2018, if the EPA accepts the APS plan.

Baghouses, activated carbon injection and scrubbers are all technologies designed to clean up smokestack emissions.

Mike Eisenfeld with 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."

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 that people ingest by eating fish from polluted lakes and rivers.

Dr. Robert Bernstein, president of the New Mexico chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, says the dangers of mercury are serious.

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

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

Power companies argue that the new rules will cost jobs and raise electric rates up to 25 percent. The EPA estimates homeowners will only pay three or four dollars more a month, and says that's a small cost compared with the potential benefits to their health and the environment.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ