Four Corners states to face challenges with EPA's Visibility Rule

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Nov. 9 a court ordered schedule to review and act on more than 40 state pollution reduction plans aimed to reduce the pollutants that cause regional haze, including nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particles. The regional haze program, also known as the Clean Air Visibility Rule, is aimed at improving visibility in national parks and wilderness areas.

These parks and wilderness areas, known as Class I Federal areas, include locations such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, the Shenandoah Valley, the Great Smokies, Acadia and the Everglades.

EPA said it intends to propose and finalize a rule by spring 2012 that addresses the determination that power plants meeting the requirements in the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) will fulfill the best available retrofit technology (BART) requirements under the regional haze program. However, EPA will likely not approve what some states choose as BART, said Tzu-Yuan Su, senior regulatory analyst at energy management firm Fellon-McCord.

In order to understand what EPA requires for visibility compliance, consider the history of the regional haze program. EPA initially issued a rule in 1999 requiring states to submit state implementation plans (SIPs) for regional haze. These plans were due in December 2007. However, none of the states affected by the regional haze program had submitted SIPs by the end of 2007. Because of changes with the Clean Air Interstate Rule, the visibility program implementation was delayed. This resulted in the National Parks Conservation Association and other environmental groups suing the agency in August 2011 to take action on these plans.

After 2007, several states, including North Dakota, eventually submitted SIPs to the EPA. In North Dakota’s proposal, the state recommended selective non-catalytic reduction (SNCR) technology as BART. EPA, however, asserted selective catalytic reduction (SCR) as the BART compliant option for the plants. The state conducted a fact-finding study, which resulted in the discovery that installing SCR on lignite coal was not feasible.

“EPA did not find an implementation problem on using SCR on lignite coal, because they only looked at Texas lignite coal, which has a slightly lower sodium content than northern lignite coal,” Su said.

With this in mind, Su said the states most affected by the Visibility Rule will likely be Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, also known as the Four Corners states. These four states not only use northern lignite coal, but are also located in Class 1 Federal areas.

Another state that will be faced with changing its SIP is Oklahoma. The state has encountered an ongoing debate with EPA over three coal-fired plants that EPA says are not under compliance of the Visibility Rule. The plants are Oklahoma Gas and Electric (OG&E) Co.’s Muskogee and Sooner Stations, and AEP-Public Service Co. of Oklahoma’s Red Rock Station. According to the rule, the stations must achieve EPA’s emission limit for SO2 – 0.15 lb/mmBtu, or 95 percent removal. OG&E said it would cost about $10,000 per ton to reduce SO2 emissions to those levels through the use of scrubber technology at its two plants.

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) previously submitted a SIP to EPA, but the EPA identified the plan as one that “does not meet one or more of the required elements.”

In its Nov. 9 announcements, EPA said that in many cases, the technologies are already installed or in the process of being installed to meet other state and federal requirements, including CSAPR. Proposed changes were recently made to CSAPR, set to meet final approval by the end of November. Su said that if CSAPR implementation is prolonged, the Visibility Rule will likely also meet delays.

States are currently working on plans to meet haze requirements, but if a state is unable to establish a plan, EPA said it will determine a federal plan.

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