- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

NUCLA, Colo. (AP) - Sitting in a computerized control room, John Martinez can keep a close eye on the operations of the Nucla Station as the coal-fired plant’s turbines churn out electricity to the surrounding region.

The outlook for his own future - and that of tiny Nucla and nearby communities - is a lot less clear, however, following Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s recent announcement of a regional-haze agreement under which it would shut down the 100-megawatt plant by the end of 2022. Also to be closed would be Tri-State’s nearby New Horizon Mine, which supplies the western Montrose County plant.

Martinez considered himself lucky when he landed the power-plant job after previously having done resort-region construction work, reported The Daily Sentinel (http://bit.ly/2dlTSxa). He hopes to avoid having to return to that kind of work.

“I really don’t want to commute to Telluride if I don’t have to,” he said.

But the local job options could be pretty limited in far-western Montrose County once two of its major employers close their doors, eliminating what are currently 55 jobs at the plant and 28 at the mine.

“Nobody’s going to be free from the impact of that shutdown,” said Breck Richards, a Nucla native whose family owns Tri-Park Corp., a Nucla trucking company that hauls and buries coal ash from the mine. “It’s a lot like it was when Union Carbide shut down in the early ‘80s. It will devastate the area for quite a while.”

Union Carbide’s shutdown of its uranium mill northwest of Nucla left behind little more than a roadside sign along Colorado Highway 141 to explain the history of what had been the community of Uravan.

But people like Nucla Mayor Dawna Morris are already hard at work on ways to avoid a similar fate for this town of fewer than 700 people. Efforts already have been ongoing for years to bring in new business, and it helps that, according to Morris, a lot of people are determined to stay there.

“We’ll see how it goes,” she said of the town’s economic development efforts.

The Nucla closings are part of a broader agreement under which one of three generating units at the Craig Station coal-fired plant near Craig would be closed by the end of 2025. That station is operated by Tri-State, and owned by utilities including Tri-State, Xcel Energy, PacifiCorp, Platte River Power Authority and the Salt River Project. While the 427-megawatt Unit 1 would be closed, two other units in what is currently a 1,300-megawatt plant would continue to operate.

Craig’s Unit 1 and the Nucla Station also would be subject to stricter emission limits starting in 2020.

The agreement was reached recently with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, WildEarth Guardians and the National Parks Conservation Association, and would revise what’s called the Colorado Visibility and Regional Haze State Implementation Plan. It’s subject to EPA and state review, including by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the state legislature.

The agreement modifies an earlier legal settlement with WildEarth Guardians and the National Parks Conservation Association under which Tri-State and its partners had agreed to upgrade pollution controls at Craig Station to reduce haze in national parks and wilderness areas. The two groups earlier had sued the EPA after it approved the state haze plan, required by federal law to reduce haze and improve views in such backcountry areas.

The new agreement is being praised by the two conservation groups and by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as one that will not only cut haze but result in the public breathing cleaner air and emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide being reduced. It’s expected to cut carbon emissions by some 4 million to 5 million tons per year, which WildEarth Guardians says is like taking about a million cars off the road.

“We are very thrilled to see the carbon reductions,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians.

PLAYERS SENSITIVE TO IMPACTS

Dr. Larry Wolk, CDPHE’s executive director, said the agreement will reduce all kinds of emissions, “some of which have direct respiratory effects on people who suffer from asthma and things like that. So from an environmental standpoint this is a good decision.”

Still, no one, Nichols and Wolk included, disputes the economic impacts it will have on the Nucla and Craig areas.

“Without a doubt this agreement is hitting hard . I acknowledge that,” Nichols said, referring in particular to the outright shutdown of the Nucla station and mine.

He said he hopes the years leading up to the shutdown will allow time for a plan for economic transition in western Montrose County.

Wolk said the state plans to be involved, including through Department of Local Affairs programs and the Office of Economic Development, in trying to help affected communities transition to diverse, economically sustainable economies after the coal-related jobs are lost.

“I don’t want people to think we’re insensitive to that - that we aren’t thinking about that,” he said.

Luke Schafer, a staff member for the environmental group Conservation Colorado who lives in Craig, said that when it comes to addressing the job and economic needs of coal communities in transition, leadership needs to start with the federal government “to ensure that everyone is made whole.”

Tri-State is forming transition teams in Craig and Nucla to help employees and communities plan for the future and to prepare for decommissioning of power facilities and mine operations. Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey said it’s expected that retirements and attrition will help minimize the impacts to workers, but he acknowledged that the agreement will have significant impacts, particularly in Nucla.

It’s not yet known what the job impacts will be in Craig, where some 283 work at the plant. Craig Mayor Ray Beck said another 220 employees work at the Colowyo Mine and 180 employees work at the Trapper Mine. The two nearby mines supply the plant’s coal. Tri-State owns Colowyo and partly owns Trapper.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the community, (as to) what’s next,” said Beck, who noted that Kmart also recently announced it will close its Craig store in December, meaning 30-plus jobs will be lost.

He said the Tri-State agreement surprised him, and, he thinks, a lot of other people in the community, including Tri-State employees.

“It was a business decision. Tri-State’s got to do what they’ve got to do and I understand that,” he said.

Said Morris, Nucla’s mayor, “Tri-State is a business. They don’t owe us anything, to be honest with you. . They have to do what is economical for them and that’s what they’re doing. . We have to do what we need to do.”

Tri-State and the other utilities said in announcing the agreement that the decision to revisit the haze plan “is driven by the state and federal regulatory environment for coal-based generation, current and forecasted market conditions, the significant costs to install additional emissions controls and the best interests of electric consumers.”

Boughey said new emissions controls are being installed on Craig Station Units 2 and 3. The current state plan requires significant nitrogen oxide emission reductions for Unit 1 by August 2021, but the Craig Station owners eventually decided to seek an extension to that deadline in return for retiring the unit, rather than paying to install more emissions controls.

DISMAY OVER NEWS

The announcement of the impending demise of the Nucla plant and mine has angered some elected officials, including Montrose County Commissioner Glen Davis and state Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. Among their concerns are the loss of high-paying jobs in a region where there are few jobs to begin with, and potential impacts to the county’s West End Public School District. Coram fears it could be forced to close, or at the least require a lot of backfill funding from the state.

Coram plans to fight the agreement when it reaches the point of legislative review, although he said he faces an uphill battle given the low number of rural lawmakers in Colorado.

“I’m not optimistic but I will give it my full effort, I guarantee you that,” he said. ” . Our lives matter and I want the rest of the state to know that every action that you take has a reaction, and sometimes they’re devastating for a community.”

Coram and Davis both question what environmental benefit shutting down Nucla Station will have.

“The effect of what happens here on regional haze is a pinhead on a basketball. It is not going to do anything for the regional haze. In proportion, it is minuscule,” said Coram, who thinks CDPHE pressured Tri-State to accept the agreement.

Davis said he knows some coal plants need to be cleaned up, but he disputes the idea that haze will be reduced on the Front Range by getting rid of a plant in Montrose County “that doesn’t produce it.”

“I have yet to drive into that (San Miguel River) valley and see anything coming out of that plant,” he said. “I’m just asking people to come to the table and use a little common sense. I don’t know, maybe common sense isn’t that common.”

Nichols said state modeling shows the Nucla Station affects haze levels at Arches and Canyonlands national parks and the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado. The Craig Station contributes to haze in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, he said.

Wolk said the agreement will result in “pretty significant reductions” in haze. When combined with other steps taken to address power plant pollution in the state, “the pieces are starting to add up” in controlling emissions and reducing respiratory problems, he said.

He said it’s not an urban-specific concern that’s driving such efforts.

“I can tell you, some of these air pollutants affect the folks living in rural communities as much as they do people living in the urban corridor,” he said.

People such as Coram and Richards, the trucking contractor, are concerned about Tri-State succumbing to legal pressure originating from environmental groups. U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, worried in a news release following the announced deal about “sue and settle” tactics by these groups that show “complete disregard for the families who rely on mining and power generation to put food on their tables,” not to mention for the consumers who rely on that power.

Nichols said it’s easy to blame environmentalists, but Tri-State is being driven partly by business considerations, including increased interest among the rural electricity co-ops it serves in shifting away from coal power.

He added, “I would say that our regulations over the years have been catching up with our public health needs, our climate needs and our quality of life needs. Tri-State probably doesn’t like it, but that’s the reality that they face right now.”

Beck, the Craig mayor, said Gov. John Hickenlooper could give coal communities a break if he would back off on his insistence on pursuing state carbon reductions outlined under the federal Clean Power Plan, even though that plan is tied up in court.

For Craig’s coal economy, proceeding with those reductions in Colorado “could be the nail in the coffin,” he said.

___

Information from: The Daily Sentinel, http://www.gjsentinel.com

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