Dirty coal plants are a regional issue: California should tell its utilities to stop polluting the West.

The controversy in my home state of New Mexico about how to best control toxic pollution from the San Juan Generating Station, which also provides power to California, underscores that the impact of dirty coal extends far beyond state borders.

Five SCPPA utilities: Azusa, Banning, Colton, Glendale, and Imperial Irrigation own 41.8% of the 555 MW Unit Three at San Juan. The joint power agency MSR (City of Santa Clara, the City of Redding, and the Modesto Irrigation District) owns 28.8% of Unit Four (also 555 MW) and the City of Anaheim owns 10%. The California Energy Commission (CEC) regulates the publicly owned utilities that own part of San Juan.

Since I grew up and still have family roots in northern New Mexico, I have been paying close attention to what is happening there regarding this highly polluting plant in the Four Corners region. The authorities in my adopted state of California ought to be, too, as should officials in the adjacent states of Colorado, Arizona and Utah.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered San Juan owner and operator PNM (Public Service Company of New Mexico) and its partners in the 40-year-old plant near Farmington, NM -- including some of California’s publicly owned utilities (SCPPA, MSR and City of Anaheim utilities) – to cut emissions at the four-unit generating station that contribute to hazardous regional haze.

Last Month I joined with a coalition of environmental and citizens’ organizations in urging PNM and New Mexico’s Governor Susana Martinez to meet with us and other stakeholders soon to discuss how to further reduce pollution – including carbon emissions -- from the aging San Juan plant. Cleaning up the plant would create an opportunity to transition to clean energy while protecting public health and improving the air quality and scenic views at 16 nearby national treasures, including the Grand Canyon.

This invitation followed the governor’s letter to the EPA stating “we owe it to the taxpayers to see if we can avoid further litigation by resolving this dispute outside of the courtroom.” She urged EPA, PNM, and other interested stakeholders to evaluate whether there are viable alternatives to the EPA requirements that “will be in both the environmental and economic best interests of New Mexico.” PNM continues to oppose the pollution reduction requirements.

Meanwhile, NRDC and the Sierra Club have urged the CEC to strengthen and clarify California’s Emissions Performance Standard (EPS). Under the EPS, developed as part of SB 1368, California utilities are prohibited from making long-term investments in power plants that release more global warming pollution than a combined-cycle natural gas power plant, unless that pollution is captured and sequestered.  Our petition requests that the CEC make clear to the California owners of San Juan that now is the time to transition from dirty power to clean power.

Meanwhile, there is little doubt that the plant is generating hazardous emissions. One of New Mexico’s utility regulators recently was quoted as saying the 1,800-megawatt plant “is only about 30 percent efficient” with the remainder of the burning coal being wasted out the smokestack.

The plant is one of the nation’s largest sources of nitrogen oxide pollution and there are estimates that the emissions have resulted in significant health costs from asthma and other respiratory and cardiovascular ailments.  The Clean Air Act requires states to prevent air pollution from sources within their borders from impairing air quality and visibility in other states, as well as in America’s pristine and wilderness areas, making dirty coal a regional as well as national issue.

The air in the Four Corners region is also impacted by other fossil fuels: just last year, community air sampling in the San Juan Basin that includes the plant found 22 toxic chemicals, including four known carcinogens.  

The governor of New Mexico and PNM have balked at the EPA’s “Federal Implementation Plan for Interstate Transport of Pollution Affecting Visibility and Best Available Retrofit Technology” (BART FIP) for the San Juan Generating Station because they say it will cost $750 million to $1 billion, although EPA estimates the cost at $345 million. New Mexico and PNM have been pushing alternative, selective non-catalytic technology they say will meet federal standards for $77 million to $100 million. A spokesperson for the Modesto Irrigation District recently testified before Congress arguing that EPA should allow Californians to release more pollution in northern New Mexico.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed over the issue of how much pollution to allow, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently denied PNM’s request for a stay to prevent the EPA’s September 2016 implementation deadline.

Either retrofit plan would no doubt require new long term financial commitments from California public utilities. That means more good money after bad. California should no longer tolerate its utilities dumping pollution in neighboring states. Instead, it should make clear that its utilities have to clean up their act: if they are going to put more money into San Juan, those investments have to at least comply with the Emissions Performance Standard of 1100 lbs CO2/MWhr. Currently the plant pollutes at more than twice that rate.  Even better would be to transition to renewable power, and meet California's 33% RPS with zero emissions energy.

It’s time for California to tell its public utilities they can no longer pollute northern New Mexico.