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Ute Indian Tribe, WildEarth Guardians Join Forces for Clean Air, Public Health in Utah's Uinta Basin

Groups To File Suit Against Deseret Power Over Thousands of Air Quality Violations at Bonanza Coal-fired Power Plant in northeastern Utah

Additional contact:

Frances Bassett, Attorney for the Ute Indian Tribe, (303) 673-9600

Fort Duchesne, UT—Aiming to protect people from high air pollution levels in Utah’s Uinta Basin, including within the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation, the Ute Tribe and WildEarth Guardians today put Deseret Power, the owner of the Bonanza coal-fired power plant, on notice that they intend to file suit in federal court if the company does not stop illegally polluting and start protecting clean air.

“This is about protecting the health, safety, and welfare of our people, and in particular our children, our future generations,” said Irene Cuch, Chairwoman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee.  “We do not and will not tolerate illegal air pollution on our reservation.  If Deseret won’t clean up its act, we will go to court to force them to clean up.”

The groups’ notice letter comes as thousands of clean air violations have been uncovered at the Bonanza Power Plant, a 30 year-old, 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant located within the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation of northeastern Utah.  Every year, the plant spews more than 3.5 million of tons of air pollution from a 600-foot smokestack.

At the same time, the region around the power plant—referred to as the Uinta Basin—has been choked with high air pollution.  Monitors located on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation have registered concentrations of ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of urban smog, that have frequently surpassed federal health standards in the last three years.  In 2011, health standards were exceeded on 22 days.  The smog levels were higher than those recorded in Los Angeles.

Ground-level ozone is a major health concern on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation.  Ozone can trigger asthma attacks, scar the lungs of children, send elders to the emergency room, and even cause premature death.  The poisonous gas forms when pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes reacts with sunlight.

The most serious violations uncovered at the plant involve an upgrade project that Deseret undertook in 2000 to increase the size of the Bonanza Power Plant.  According to data submitted by Deseret to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the project increased the generating capacity by more than 30 megawatts, in turn increased the amount of coal burned at the plant and increasing smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 1,000 tons annually.

A key provision of the Clean Air Act is that anytime a coal-fired power plant increases its size and pollution rates, the polluter must install the “best available” pollution controls.  Despite increasing its size in 2000, Deseret did not upgrade its pollution controls. 

Estimates indicate that if Deseret had followed the law, its nitrogen oxide emissions would be reduced more than 90% annually.

 “We’re honored to be able to work side by side with the Ute Tribe to rein in this rogue coal-fired power plant,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director.  “With air pollution on the rise, we need relief, we need clean air solutions.”

Other violations at the plant that have been uncovered include:  violations of coal consumption rates (Deseret has burned more coal than it represented it would burn in its permits); violations of opacity limits (opacity, the thickness of the smoke leaving the stack, is an indicator of particulate matter pollution), and violations of hourly nitrogen oxide rates (the plant has emitted more nitrogen oxide on an hourly basis than it represented it would in its permits).

In total, the groups have uncovered more than 35,000 violations. 

The groups’ notice letter comes as other industries, including the oil and gas industry, are increasingly taking steps to limit their air pollution in the Uinta Basin.  In spite of these efforts, the groups note that Deseret has taken no similar steps to limit emissions from the Bonanza Power Plant.

Under the Clean Air Act, any person can file suit in federal court to enforce air quality violations where the Environmental Protection Agency or the States fail to enforce.  Because the Bonanza Plant is located within the Uintah-Ouray Reservation, it is not subject to state jurisdiction.  And although the plant is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, they have not indicated they intend to take any enforcement action.

Before the groups can file suit, however, they first have to provide written notice of the violations to the polluter.  If the violations are not resolved, under the law citizens can file suit after 60 days.  Today’s notice letter provides the required 60 day warning.

If the Ute Indian Tribe and WildEarth Guardians ultimately head to court, the groups will seek a ruling ordering Deseret to install up-to-date pollution controls and to pay penalties.  Under the Clean Air Act, polluters can be fined up to $37,500 per violations per day.  The groups estimate that Deseret could be liable for more than $1 billion in penalties.

About the Ute Indian Tribe:  The Ute Indian Tribe resides on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah. Three bands of Utes comprise the Ute Indian Tribe: the Whiteriver Band, the Uncompahgre Band and the Uintah Band. The Tribe has a membership of more than three thousand individuals, with over half living on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The Ute Indian Tribe operates its own tribal government and oversees approximately 1.3 million acres of trust land which contains significant oil and gas deposits.  The Tribal Business Committee is the governing council of the Tribe.

About WildEarth Guardians:  WildEarth Guardians is a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild rivers, and wild places of the American West.  Through its Climate and Energy Program, the organization works to safeguard clean air from fossil fuels.


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