Power plant pollution

Customers must begin to pay the real costs

The Navajo Generating Station, near Page, Ariz., is one of the most heavily polluting coal-fired power plants in the nation, and it's upwind of the Four Corners. It sends a visible cloud, as well as invisible pollutants, wafting in this direction nearly every day of the year. The haze hangs over major tourist attractions like Mesa Verde National Park and the Grand Canyon, and obscures views that long-time residents remember clearly. Power plant emissions have been scientifically linked to severe respiratory problems for those who live downwind.

The Navajo Generating Station also is one of the major economic drivers for its region, including the Hopi and Navajo nations. It provides good jobs, a market for coal mined nearby, and tribal income through taxes and lease payments. It also provides power for the extensive federal project that provides water to much of Arizona.

The costs and benefits are difficult to reconcile.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, in an effort to clear the air without destroying the region's economy, has proposed requiring the plant to upgrade its pollution-control technology, but not until 2023. The equipment may cost more than $1 billion and, according to the utility that operates the power plant, may not improve air quality substantially. The Salt River Project and elected officials in and from Arizona want the EPA to back off.

According to the Associated Press, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake said the EPA proposal "is sure to raise water and power rates for tribal and non-tribal communities throughout Arizona, undermining three decades' worth of bipartisan water policy and numerous water settlement agreements."

Here's another translation: "An entire economy has been allowed to grow up around a power for which users have been required to pay only part of the costs." That's true not only for the Navajo Generating Station but, in varying degrees, for coal-fired power plants everywhere. The same issues face power plant operators and residents in northern New Mexico.

The benefits accrue to those mentioned above: mineral rights owners, miners, power-plant workers, power customers, Central Arizona Project water customers and utilities. Some benefit more than others, and some are at greater risk of losing out. Water and power will continue to flow to the far more prosperous areas of the state, but the loss of jobs associated with the power plant would devastate that part of northern Arizona and its residents. No one wants that to happen.

But smog is not benign. For example, people with respiratory illnesses may have higher medical costs and lower earning capacity if they live downwind of a power plant, including the Navajo Generating Station. Should the government - in the form of taxpayers - cover those costs as a transparent subsidy to affordable power? Hardly anyone believes that, especially since power users here are effectively exporting their own pollution downwind from plants in northwest Colorado. Power is fungible; most people use it, and most people breathe poorer air because of it. Yet mitigating the effects of power plant pollution certainly is one of the real costs of electricity, and requiring effective pollution control systems to be funded by utility customers, wherever they are, is the logical solution.

It may be true that current technology doesn't provide a solution, but that can't just be a stalling tactic. Ten years ought to be long enough to develop equipment that works. Meanwhile, the true costs are adding up.