A proposed cleanup of Montana air pollution would force three industrial plants to spend $90 million on measures to improve visibility in some of the nation’s prized public lands, including Yellowstone and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks.
The Environmental Protection Agency plan would clear the air in the Big Sky State of about 15,000 tons annually of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Those pollutants react with the atmosphere to create haze.
The agency says upgrades would be needed within five years at the Colstrip coal power plant, Ash Grove cement plant near Montana City and Holcim cement plant near Three Forks.
Colstrip would bear the brunt of the cost – more than $80 million for new scrubbers and other steps to clean the emissions from its stacks.
Colstrip operator PPL Montana says the proposal carries too steep a cost, and for only marginal improvements. Spokesman David Hoffman said the visibility improvements would be “non-perceptible,” a claim disputed by the EPA.
“We’re moving very quickly in a short period of time at huge costs to obtain a result that’s pretty questionable,” Hoffman said. “It’s going to be a challenge to the plant.”
PPL’s Corette plant in Billings was not required to make any upgrades. They also would not be required at two of the four power generators at Colstrip.
The EPA was prodded into action by a legal challenge in part by environmentalists who sued the agency to set deadlines to follow through on haze rules adopted in 1999. Two of the groups involved, WildEarth Guardians and the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the agency’s proposal does not go far enough.
Representatives of the groups criticized the EPA’s rejection of even stricter pollution limits that would have required tens of millions of dollars in additional spending by the plants.
“People might gasp a little bit and say that’s a lot of money but you have to look at how much these companies are profiting off these facilities. It dwarfs these costs,” said Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center.
In the Western U.S., haze is blamed for reducing visibility by half versus natural conditions, a maximum of 60 to 90 miles. In most of the U.S. the phenomenon is even more acute, with visibility reduced to just 15 to 30 miles.
Many other states have been devising their own haze-reduction plans but Montana chose to let the federal government take the lead. Some states and utilities elsewhere have been pushing back. As with PPL, they cite costs and say the five-year timeline for compliance is too short.
The first phase of the EPA’s program is aimed at plants built between 1962 and 1977 that churn out at least 250 tons of pollutants annually. The goal is to eliminate haze in parks and wilderness areas by 2064.
The cost of reducing haze across the U.S. has been estimated at $1.5 billion a year by Spin-off benefits from reduced health care spending on pollution-related illnesses were estimated at $8.4 billion or more annually.
The proposal could become final after a 60-day public comment period. Public hearings hosted by the EPA are scheduled for May 15 in Helena and May 16 in Billings.
EPA spokesman Rich Mylottt in Denver said in an emailed statement that the reduction in pollution would have spinoff benefits to public health, particularly among children. The agency declined to make anyone available for an on-the-record interview.
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