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More about Navajo Generating Station, air pollution, visibility at national parks, LADWP

In Arizona, the Navajo Generating Station is a coal-fired power plant consuming up to 25,000 tons of coal per day that serves the LADWP, among others.
In Arizona, the Navajo Generating Station is a coal-fired power plant consuming up to 25,000 tons of coal per day that serves the LADWP, among others.

Still talking about Navajo Generating Station. Last week I was connecting issues around air quality to LA. Then on Friday I got an email from George Hardeen, who is a communications consultant for the Navajo Generating Station, and a longtime resident of the Navajo Nation. He wrote to clarify some issues, and we subsequently talked on the phone. 

I'm learning how complicated the debate is in Arizona around how these power plants are regulated, with the stickiest wicket being the power plant on native lands. 

Hardeen seemed concerned that I not paint NGS as anti-environmental controls generally. In an email, he pointed out:  

In 2011, NGS completed installation of its $46 million low NOx burners specifically to reduce NOx in order to improve regional visibility. Knowing this to be the case, consequently, I don’t take issue with the idea that reducing NOx is important to visibility, as you reported.

I see what he's saying, but it's a little hair-splitting. Lots of people, among them people supportive of NGS's desire to delay or phase in implementation of pollution controls, raise questions about how well the EPA's rules will actually affect visibility. I simply was conveying that Hardeen is aligned with people who raise those questions. 

Among those who raise those questions is the company SRP, which manages the power plant, with whom Hardeen works. SRP wishes to call attention to the value of the power plant to the Navajo nation, jobs for people who live there, and the local economy. Here's an excerpt from a February SRP news release heralding an economic study valuing the power plant as a job and economy engine in the Navajo Nation and around the state. 

"This study makes it very clear that as the EPA considers what actions are necessary at NGS to address environmental concerns, it is critical that their process take into account the economic implications of any new regulatory requirements," said John Sullivan, chief resources executive at SRP, which manages NGS. "The owners of NGS have already made significant voluntary investments in environmental controls that have reduced emissions from the plant. Any further costly controls would have little visibility benefit, but could threaten the plant's viability."

A second point Hardeen makes is worth attention, too. Hardeen offers evidence that closing down other coal-fired generating stations hasn't done much to improve visibility elsewhere in that email: 

Studies since the closure of the Southern California Edison’s Mohave Generating Station on Dec. 31, 2005, when its SO2 and NOx emissions went to zero, show no measurable improvement in Grand Canyon visibility. So I believe it is fair to say that further reducing NGS's NOx to improve Grand Canyon visibility is, in fact, debatable.

It's not just Hardeen who advances this view. Interior asked the scientists at the National Renewable Energies Lab to look at "Navajo Generating Station and Air Visibility Regulations: Alternatives and Impacts."

The NREL team wrote, right up front, that figuring out what Navajo contributes to poor visibility of national parks and monuments might have been their task, but it wasn't something that they could actually do: 

The question fundamental to this proceeding—how reducing NOx from Navajo GS would contribute to improving visibility at the Grand Canyon and other areas of concern—requires a deeper inquiry and more time than was allowed for this project, and it requires expertise in atmospheric chemistry and air transport modeling, not power sector expertise. Evidence suggests that NOx emissions from Navajo GS are a likely incremental contributor to haze at the Grand Canyon. Whether the incremental contribution is significant or even perceptible is a matter of debate among experts in the field of visibility science.

All this matters to Los Angeles because Navajo Generating Station matters to Los Angeles. DWP's still in it; if it undertakes more pollution controls, the cost of those controls could be passed on to consumers. Anti-coal activists are pushing to get DWP and LA out of coal plants, and they can point to visibility as another justification for their cause.