Utahns who think we're not involved in the controversy about pollution-control retrofitting at the Navajo Generating Station should think again.
Granted, air pollution from the plant at Page, Ariz., most severely impacts the Grand Canyon, smogging it over in the winter and sometimes in moist periods during other seasons. "But at other times, when the winds shift, the emissions go somewhere - and where they go is within the Golden Circle," said Martha Hahn, vice president for conservation of the Grand Canyon Trust.The Golden Circle links popular tourist destinations, including national parks, in southern Utah, northern Arizona and southwestern Colorado. Hahn is especially knowledgeable because of her background as a Bureau of Land Management expert for southern Utah's San Rafael Swell, then as a resource manager at Grand Canyon National Park, then back to Utah as a BLM official.
When she worked at Grand Canyon, the haze was sometimes dense enough that a person would see layers upon layers of smog. Worse, at times "you can't even see the outlines" of the formations. What is supposed to be one of the world's most scenic views is socked in solid.
National Park Service researchers estimate that pollution from the Navajo Power Station 15 miles from the park accounts for 70 percent of the visibility damage.
Park Service studies identified other sources than the power plant, notably regional haze from Las Vegas and Los Angeles, but not the copper smelters that were once blamed for much of the air pollution in the Southwest. The smelters have cleaned up their emissions.
Hahn said the 2,250-megawatt plant has not been required so far to employ any equipment to control its enormous sulfur dioxide emissions, which amount to more than 65,000 tons yearly.
However, under the Clean Air Act, a pollution source that affects the visibility of Class I areas such as national parks or wilderness areas must retrofit with the best available control devices.
Citing the act, EPA officials proposed ordering the station to install equipment that could have cut 90 percent of the sulfur dioxide. But about two weeks ago, Hahn said, the EPA backed off.
"They were pressured by the White House and the Office of Management and Budget," she said. "They basically were swayed to drop it down to 70 percent."
Excellent control devices are in use elsewhere. Hahn said four plants installed wet scrubbers, which can cut emissions by 95 percent.
The battle is now over the phrase "best available control technology." Plant backers contend that what's available depends on what you can afford and that the plant can't put on equipment that is too expensive.
"It's the rationale you hear everywhere, and that's economics," Hahn said. Environmentalists want a system of wet scrubbers put on. "At 95 percent control, it would cut it to 3,500 tons."
Poor-mouthing just doesn't cut it. The plant is owned by several giant entities, and the largest proportion is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The federal government can afford the best in pollution control.
Hahn said a study shows that the equipment to reduce emissions by 70 percent would add $1.50 a month to an average home's electric bill. But by going for 95 percent reduction, the additional cost would be only 15 cents a month, "less than it costs to mail a postcard," she said.
Hahn said that even if 95 percent reductions are enforced, it still won't clear the Grand Canyon completely because of the regional haze blight.
Meanwhile, a study sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Grand Canyon Trust indicates that haze from all sources, including the Navajo station, affects visibility throughout the Golden Circle - Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef, Natural Bridges, Mesa Verde and Petrified Forest as well as Canyonlands.
When economic considerations are raised, the real costs should be weighed as well. The ratepayer's bill is only one aspect of the story. Part of the cost of air pollution is passed along to the residents of the region who breathe these insidious poisons; visitors whose trips to the Grand Canyon are spoiled by dense haze; the loss to operators, motel owners and service station workers whose business is reduced.
The protection of nature is a duty all share. It's another of those costs that are too easily ignored: The price for living in this glorious natural world includes whatever is required to keep our planet fit for life.
Air pollution in the Southwest is a terrible affliction. It damages some of the world's prime tourist attractions. But even if no tourists were ever lured to our area, allowing a pall of manmade haze to hang over our lovely natural region would be shameful.
Anyone wishing to comment on how much control the EPA should require may write by April 19 to Dave Stone-field, Air Quality Management Division (MD-15), Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, Environmental Protection Agency, Research Triangle Park, NC 27711.