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Wyoming Plan Promises More Coal Pollution

Guardians Files Suit Over EPA's Failure to Meet Clean Air Act

Wyoming—The skies of Wyoming and its neighboring states stand to be stained by more sulfur under a plan approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, spurring WildEarth Guardians to file suit in an effort to compel the agency to comply with the Clean Air Act.

“Just like sulfur, this plan stinks,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians.  “Far from protecting clean air, it actually allows more sulfur dioxide pollution from the state’s coal-fired power plants, putting the West’s most cherished landscapes and countless communities at risk.”

The suit, filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, challenges the Environmental Protection Agency’s December 12, 2012 approval of a plan that was supposed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants in order to curb haze pollution in the American West.  In actuality, the plan allows even more air pollution to be released than these plants are currently emitting.

The EPA’s approach relied on a “milestone,” or cap on sulfur dioxide emissions.  That cap presumed that coal burning power plants, including 13 coal burning units in Wyoming, emit at a rate of 0.15 pounds for every million Btus of heat input (essentially a measure of coal consumption).  However, power plants in Wyoming are not only already emitting at rates far below the 0.15 presumption, but often can achieve even lower rates. 

Click here to see a chart showing the differences between EPA’s presumed emission rates, current emission rates, and emission rates that are achievable.

An example of this is with the Jim Bridger power plant in southern Wyoming, which is owned and operated by Rocky Mountain Power, a subsidiary of PacifiCorp.  In previous assessments, the company itself determined that the plant could achieve an emission rate of 0.10 pounds per million Btus of heat input, a 33% lower rate than what EPA presumed.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA’s cap is supposed to achieve emission reductions that are better than the “best available retrofit technology.”  An expert report prepared by a coalition of conservation and health organizations estimates that if best available retrofit technology was utilized at Wyoming coal-fired power plants, sulfur dioxide emissions would be reduced by more than 10,000 tons below the EPA’s estimate, about a 1/3 greater reduction in pollution.  These reductions could be achieved through the use of scrubbers, which are already installed at most coal-fired power plants.

Click here to download the conservation and health coalition’s expert report (see tables 12 and 15) and click here to download a table illustrating the differences between EPA’s cap and achievable emission reductions.

“EPA’s plan defies reality and defies what is necessary to safeguard our clean air,” said Nichols.  “This is an opportunity to make significantly more progress in restoring clear skies in the West that EPA squandered.”

According to the EPA, sulfur dioxide is not only a poisonous gas that can lead to a number of respiratory conditions, but it also creates particulate matter pollution, acid rain, and haze.  Nationally, 75% of all sulfur dioxide emissions are generated by coal-fired power plants.

The EPA’s “milestone” approach to reducing sulfur dioxide emissions is being applied in the states of New Mexico and Utah as well.  EPA presumed inflated sulfur dioxide emission rates from coal-fired power plants in those states as well.  Estimates indicate that overall, sulfur dioxide pollution could be reduced by nearly 20,000 tons if EPA’s cap reflected achievable emission rates.

WildEarth Guardians’ suit will challenge the validity of EPA’s cap and the agency’s claim that its approach to limiting sulfur dioxide pollution will be better than the “best available retrofit technology.”   Under the Clean Air Act, challenges to EPA decision are filed directly with federal appeals courts.  The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is likely to issue a ruling on the lawsuit within a year.


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