Pollution controls at power plants clean up Yampa Valley air
HAYDEN ” Rita Donham’s clients pay the aerial photographer good money to see some of the most spectacular views the West has to offer.
But more than a decade ago, the pilot began avoiding northwest Colorado’s Yampa Valley as the mountains frequently became obscured by a cloud of gunk.
“In the winter, it was more yellow than brown, and it would just hang in the valley,” said Donham, who flies out of Pinedale, Wyo. “And then there was the smell. Whew.”
Donham suspected the cloud was originating from the Hayden and Craig power plants, two large coal-fired facilities that first began generating electricity in the mid-1960s.
While the image of the foreign cloud continued to haunt her, the Forest Service was zeroing in on the culprits. After years of collecting data, the federal agency formally blamed the plants for impairing visibility at the otherwise pristine Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.
The air pollution was so bad, scientists said, that Mount Zirkel snow had the highest acid content in the western United States and threatened to radically alter the preserve’s trees, plants and wildlife habitat.
But the smog over the Yampa Valley is starting to lift after the installation of $250 million in air-pollution reducing equipment at the two plants that came courtesy of successful Sierra Club lawsuits.
A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows there has been a 48 percent decrease in haze-forming sulfur-dioxide emissions since the Xcel-owned plant in Hayden finished its upgrade in 1999.
Also on the decline is snowpack acidity in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness.
And those numbers only reflect measurements taken after the Hayden plant upgrades were finished. They do not include changes made at the Tri-State-owned Craig plant, which finished its upgrade in late 2004.
Environmental regulators expect to see even bigger decreases once the Craig plant is factored in.
“It’s really exciting for me as a scientist,” said Don Campbell, a research hydrologist with the USGS. “A lot of times, we’re the bearer of bad news. And here’s some good news at last.”
Many Steamboat Springs-area residents say they’ve noticed the air-quality improvements. Today, they simply don’t worry as much about the air they are breathing as they once did.
“We wondered about the long-term health implications with that kind of pollution ” what’s coming down the valley,” Jane Toothaker said.
Reed Zars, attorney for Toothaker and the other plaintiffs, filed the first lawsuit against the Hayden plant in 1993 and followed with the suit against Tri-State three years later.
He admits the suits were personal: His family’s 900-acre ranch sits less than a quarter- mile away from the gates to the Hayden plant.
“The valley means the world to me,” Zars said. “I tried not to let emotions get in the way, but it was pretty obvious these plants were exceeding regulatory requirements.”
Both suits alleged the plants had violated the Clean Air Act thousands of times and asked that the leaky facilities install pollution-reducing technology.
Both companies disputed the allegations, claiming the case was frivolous. In fact, one Craig plant executive compared the lawsuit to another filed by a student against the college he attended after he fell out of a window while “mooning” classmates.
The plants’ owners, however, eventually agreed to make major upgrades. Among the new installations: dry scrubbers, low nitrogen-oxide burners and baghouses, which filter tiny particles of pollution out of the air.
Today, those features are standard equipment on new power plants.
It’s unclear whether the companies would have made the improvements had they not been sued by the Sierra Club.
“The technology wasn’t available when it (the Craig plant) was originally constructed,” said Jim Van Someren, a Tri-State spokesman.
“It’s hard to speculate, but knowing the philosophy of the company and the value we place on this facility, I guess they might (have made the upgrades).”
So far, the decrease in emission levels is exceeding the goals hammered out in the consent decree, state environmental regulators say.
Dan Ely, with the state health department’s air program, said the new pollution-control equipment is “like a Cadillac” compared with the old technology.
“This is really a decade-long struggle for a lot of people that has really come to an end now,” he said.
For Donham, she’s put the Yampa Valley back on the list of breathtaking places in Colorado that she enjoys flying over.
“I still see clouds of steam, but it’s what you expect too see out of a power plant,” she said. “As far as the colored clouds go, I haven’t seen them in years there.”
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