Sierra Club study eyes Drake plant’s emissions

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Martin Drake Power Plant’s future rests on results of a study about whether to decommission it.

The Sierra Club fired another volley at Colorado Springs Utilities this week, releasing an independent study modeling sulfur dioxide pollution from the downtown, coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant.

The study, performed by Wingra Engineering of Madison, Wis., purportedly shows that the Drake plant “will likely trigger violations of federal air rules even after current and planned plant modifications.”

The highly technical document includes a map showing the path of the emissions plume emanating from Drake. Although Colorado Springs residents have long assumed that smokestack emissions from Drake are dispersed by prevailing west and northwest winds to the south and southeast of the plant, Wingra’s analysis shows a strikingly different pattern.

“Due to the physical location and unique surrounding topography of the Martin Drake coal-fired power plant,” the Sierra Club said in a press release, “pollution tends to flow toward and concentrate around the densely populated hillsides of Colorado Springs. Sulfur dioxide pollution can cause asthma attacks, severe respiratory problems, lung disease and heart complications.”

The map shows particularly high concentrations of pollutants around The Broadmoor hotel and in adjacent neighborhoods, where single-family houses are typically priced in seven figures.

“Residents living along the western foothills should be very concerned,” said Sierra Club organizer Bryce Carter.

“The independent analysis projects continuing dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide from the Kissing Camels neighborhood and Garden of the Gods, through Colorado City and Manitou Springs, down to the Broadmoor region. The elderly and children are most vulnerable to this pollution, and alarmingly a dozen schools are near or in the modeled violation zone.”

Colorado Springs Utilities takes a different view.

“The sulfur dioxide study commissioned by the Sierra Club uses theoretical modeling only,” said CSU spokesman Dave Grossman in an email. “No actual testing of Colorado Springs’ air quality was conducted for the study, so [we] don’t believe it has a lot of credibility. The EPA has not yet published guidance on appropriate assumptions for this type of modeling.

“In fact, ongoing local monitoring between 1988 and 2007 showed that sulfur dioxide levels were significantly lower than the EPA threshold. Sulfur dioxide levels were continuously tested downtown and at 10 other sites around Colorado Springs. The levels each year generally ranged from 12 PPB to 26 PPB, well below the new standard. The monitoring program was discontinued in 2007 because SO2 levels were consistently so far below EPA’s standard.

“We expect sulfur dioxide levels to be further improved after the recent switch to lower sulfur coal at the Drake Power Plant and the planned installation of additional emissions controls.”

In a further dig at the Sierra Club, Grossman pointed out that according to CNN Health in October 2012, Colorado Springs has the sixth-cleanest air in the nation.

Carter appeared Wednesday at a Utilities Board meeting and reiterated that the study’s data sets were created using models that the EPA will use to measure emissions. Utilities replied by showing a graph that supports its position.

Carter also noted that Utilities has not had any monitors in place since 2007.

In response to a question from board member Brandy Williams, a Utilities spokesman said the cost of such monitoring was exorbitant and there was no need to continue it. Williams asked for exact cost figures.

After Utilities officials responded to the study, board president Scott Hente said, “This is just point-counterpoint.”

Carter said that he hoped the board would engage in constructive dialogue with the Sierra Club.

“I don’t think they’re taking it seriously,” he said. “We’re showing violations in 2010 up to five times the EPA limit. … I don’t think they’ve had monitoring stations up in those (western) neighborhoods. I think they should take it seriously. It’s a major, major issue.”

Carter stressed that the city should immediately begin the decommissioning process, noting that the Sierra Club had filed a notice of intent to sue some months ago.

“Keeping the Martin Drake coal-fired power plant downtown is a clear boondoggle at the expense of public health and family budgets,” said Carter. “A transition to a clean, renewable energy future is affordable, is achievable, and is necessary.

“Communities across the world are making tremendous strides ahead to reach this future, and there is no reason Colorado Springs cannot join them. The first step is to commit to retiring the Martin Drake coal-fired power plant, and then work with the Decommissioning Task Force to achieve a retirement as soon as possible.”

Carter in turn dismissed CSU’s defense.

“The modeling we do is more accurate than readings from a few sites,” he said. “That’s the methodology that the EPA will use, and that’s what we’ve used at more than 100 coal-fired plants. Whatever they’re doing at Martin Drake won’t meet federal standards. Statistically, Martin Drake is responsible for eight premature deaths annually, as well many serious illnesses.”

Will the Sierra Club sue, if CSU refuses to begin a decommissioning process?

“If they continue to reject our conversation and reject our dialogue, we’ll see,” Carter said. “The Utilities Board needs to understand that the information they’re getting from CSU is wrong. There are grave consequences to this.”