A proposed power plant in Sevier County hasn't been built yet, but the fear already is that elk, eagles and waterfowl will someday be sharing space with waste from the plant.
Despite nearly seven years of trying, opponents haven't been able to stop a proposed 270 megawatt coal-fired power plant from being built near Sigurd on what watchdogs call valuable agricultural land. The permitting process for the plant is ongoing.
But lately, naysayers have turned their sites on Sevier Power Co's proposal to dump tons of coal combustion waste, or fly ash, from the $600 million plant more than 30 miles away on what some describe as prime or pristine wildlife habitat. Critics also note the waste site, if approved, would be near the headwaters of the Sevier River and near a watershed for a local agricultural aquifer.
The ash issue is on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting of the Sevier County Planning and Zoning Commission. At stake is where to dump a daily dose of about 720 tons of ash that groups like the Sierra Club say could be toxic to humans and the environment.
Sevier Citizens for Clean Air and Water President Jim Kennon said in an Aug. 28 letter to Sevier County Attorney Dale Eyre that county officials have in the past excluded public comment during public meetings about the plant. Now he wants critics' stance on ash to be heard and to count for something.
"They don't care where they put anything," Kennon said on the phone about the power company. "They just want to get it built."
For certain, Sevier Power Co. spokesman Bruce Taylor wants the plant built, with what he said are seven years of time and millions invested in the project.
Because of pending litigation and an unfinished permitting process, Taylor said the company does not have a contract to buy coal the company is banking on purchasing coal from Arch Coal Inc.'s Sufco mine nor does it have a contract with anyone to purchase the power that the plant would produce.
"We're just about there," Taylor said. "Why would we pack up?
"Does Utah need the power?" he asked. "It needs it desperately."
Quoting what he called an old saying, Taylor said "the next site is the perfect site" when it comes to where to build the plant and put the ash. The plant location appears to be a lock. It's the ash site that's up in the air.
Sevier Power Co. first wanted to store the ash at the plant site, but the idea was nixed citing possible complications in the event of a bad flood. The company was also shot down on a proposal to put the waste in the Sevier County landfill.
Now it has found 118 acres of private land near Koosharem. Sevier Power Co. has an option to purchase the land, which Taylor said is a "very good site" to dump the ash.
"There's really nothing at all around it," said Taylor. "That doesn't make it pristine anything. I can go out into the middle of the desert and make the same claim."
He said there are no water studies (nor has his company ordered any) that would validate claims that the ash will negatively impact the watershed or Sevier River. To opponents, he added, any waste site will be "too close" to something.
The power company knows it's going to have another fight on its hands, this time over ash.
Kennon suggested putting the ash in old mines. "They're filling up mines back East," he said.
But no one is doing that in Utah.
Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste's Dennis Downs and Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining's Jim Springer had not heard of anyone in Utah filling in old mines with fly ash. Some, Springer noted, may be backfilling mines with tailings from the mine.
Downs said that legally, a power company could store its ash in a landfill if it met requirements. But the problem there, he said, is that the dump would fill up a lot faster.
Like other sites, Sevier Power Co. could store the ash on the same property as the plant, Downs added. Taylor has heard it's what other plants in Utah do, but those against the plant from the beginning, he assumes, put "political pressure" on county officials to stop that from happening in Sevier County.
If the ash site appears to threaten the environment, then the state could step in.
"If they want to put it in a place that would contaminate surface or groundwater, we would definitely have a role there as would our division of water quality," Downs said.
But Kennon isn't convinced the power company will even be building a plant.
"They think they are," he said. "So far, we haven't been able to stop them by the courts."
Kennon has been or will be taking his case to the appeals and supreme courts in Utah.
In the meantime, Taylor is counting his company's victories, like clearing several local and state hurdles, including satisfying air quality regulators.
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