FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The Interior Department is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to delay its decision on pollution controls for a northern Arizona coal plant while it studies the benefits of the plant and impacts of a potential shutdown.
The Bureau of Reclamation under Interior is the majority owner of the Navajo Generating Station near Page. The EPA is considering whether to require future reduction of nitrogen oxide emissions at the 2,250-megawatt plan on the Navajo Nation to improve visibility at places like the Grand Canyon.
Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes wrote the EPA this week asking for its assurance that it would not release a proposal until after December when Interior can submit the first phase of a study that later would look at alternatives to coal generation. He said it should not cause any delay beyond the time needed for EPA to consult with American Indian tribes in the area.
The EPA had planned to release a proposal for the power plant, which is one of the biggest sources of nitrogen oxide emissions in the country, this summer. But a spokeswoman in the EPA's San Francisco office said that could be delayed because of the complex interests in the plant.
"It's very uncertain right now," said Margot Perez-Sullivan.
The power plant provides the energy needed to deliver water from the Colorado River to Tucson and Phoenix through a series of canals. That same delivery system ensures provisions of American Indian water rights settlements are met as part of a federal trust obligation to tribes like the Gila River Indian Community.
But the department also has a responsibility to protect the air quality in the nation's most pristine areas, like the Grand Canyon, he said. The EPA is using the regional haze rule under the federal Clean Air Act to determine what the best available retrofit technology would be to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at the plant. The process commonly is referred to as BART.
"All of these many different aspects of NGS and its impact on the surrounding people and resources are complex and bear directly on EPA's decision as to what will constitute BART for NGS," Hayes said.
Conservationists see the power plant that began producing electricity in 1974 as an environmental and health hazard. They contend the clock can start on EPA's proposal while Interior goes forward with the study. Once EPA issues a final rule, the plant would have five years to install any proposed controls.
"The science proves that we need a strong BART determination from EPA to bring these power plants into compliance with the law," said Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club. "We understand EPA's desire to better consult with the tribes impacted, and that's why this study is so important. We need to look at what options are available instead of shut down or run it forever. That's not going to work."
The National Park Service under Interior has urged the EPA to require that the plant owners install expensive selective catalytic converters, which the owners say would not be worth the investment without first securing lease extensions and right-of-way grants that begin expiring in 2019.
The plant's operator, Salt River Project, contends a $45 million upgrade of the three 750-megawatt units at the plant should be sufficient to clear up haze at the Grand Canyon.
Hayes said the Interior Department has not taken a stance on the appropriate controls.
Navajo Generating Station is supplied by coal from Peabody Energy's Kayenta Mine. Some 1,000 people are employed at the power plant and the mine combined, the majority of whom are American Indians.