Monument Attorney: Martin Drake Power Plant Violating Air Standards

The steam and emissions from the Martin Drake Power Plant dominate the downtown skyline on a cold day. The plant, a coal-fired electricity generator, provides almost one-third of the power generated by Colorado Springs Utilities.

While many environmental organizations and activists have fought for years against Martin Drake, a report that recently surfaced showing possible violations of federal air regulations adds a new dimension to the fight.

The report was inadvertently leaked by the Colorado Court of Appeals and allegedly indicates that the Martin Drake Power Plant has surpassed the maximum sulfur-dioxide level allowed as a part of the plant’s emissions.

The data was mistakenly released to attorney Leslie Weise, a Monument resident who has been fighting clean air battles for many years. Weise had attempted to obtain the data through various different avenues.

She used the Colorado Open Records Act to request the data from Colorado Springs Utitilies (CSU) but was denied. She then moved to El Paso Country Court, but Judge Edward Colt upheld CSU’s denial.

Weise was in the process of trying to persuade the Colorado Court of Appeals to hear the case when the Court of Appeals mistakenly emailed her the report. Weise was required to return the report, which she did, but she is allowed to speak about what she read or saw.

Weise told the Colorado Springs Gazette that “none of the information provided demonstrates compliance with the EPA standard for safe levels of sulfur dioxide. In fact, the only formal studies Utilities have conducted show just the opposite—consistent violations of the health-based standard.”

Colorado Springs Utilities denies that CSU violated standards or should have released the report. “The information developed by AECOM is not data on actual emissions from the plant,” CSU spokeswoman Amy Trinidad said to the Gazette. “Actual emissions data has been and continues to be made publicly available.”

AECOM, a multinational engineering firm, conducted the study. The study was meant to assist CSU in legal battles with environmental groups instead of being released publicly like their emissions reports, according to Trinidad and the CSU website.

Activists pushing for the release of the report created a petition on change.org that had garnered 1,023 signatures as of 6 p.m. on Wednesday. The petition, to be delivered to the City of Colorado Springs, urged the city “to put the health and welfare of your citizens above protecting Colorado Springs Utilities from pollution violation penalties.” They aim to advocate for public release of the report, a goal that will likely face fierce opposition from CSU.

CC senior Colleen Orr was one of many students who shared the petition on social media. “…often the people that are impacted the most from coal-fired power plant emissions like Martin Drake are minorities and/or people with lower income,“ said Orr.

Sulfur dioxide, the pollutant in question, enters the atmosphere in various ways, including as a byproduct of burning coal. Sulfur dioxide contributes to acid rain and it can react with other compounds in the atmosphere to form particulates, which can affect human and animal respiration. Sulfur dioxide emissions are regulated by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) under the Clean Air Act.

Photo by Sam Wang
Photo by Sam Wang

In 2011, the Martin Drake Power Plant installed a scrubber process called NeuStream to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. “Sulfur dioxide requirements under the Clean Air Act were getting stricter and they [CSU] got this new kind of scrubber that was a new technology that hadn’t been used anywhere else,” said Political Science Professor Corina McKendry. “It was invented by this local firm. There was a lot of skepticism. It had been tested but hadn’t ever been used in a functioning power plant. The question was whether it would function as well in a power plant as it did in tests.”

That local firm that developed the scrubbers was Colorado Springs company Neumann Systems Group. There was controversy over their involvement because the contract awarded to Neumann was not put out for a public bid which would allow for a competitive process. Instead, the contract worth $73.5 million was awarded to Neumann directly.

“What this [the leaked report] implies, you need more data to know for sure, is perhaps the scrubbers did not work as well as they had hoped,” said McKendry. “There are pretty strict reporting requirements under the Clean Air Act, so if they are violating those, they are in for a huge lawsuit.

Additionally, Martin Drake would have  to change procedures to meet NAAQS standards within five years and then be monitored for the next 20 years.

However, if the decommissioning of Martin Drake continues on schedule, CSU will stop operations before those 20 years are up. In November of 2015, the Utilities Board voted to close Martin Drake by 2035 at the latest. Unit 5, which is the oldest and smallest of the three units currently in operation, will be decommissioned by the end of 2016.

Martin Drake will follow the path of many coal-fired power plants in recent years. “Coal-fired power plants are shutting down all over the country as coal becomes less competitive with natural gas,” said McKendry. 

But in the interim, the battle continues between CSU and Weise. In response to the inadvertent release and Weise’s decision to go public with the information, CSU is seeking attorney’s fees from Weise. Meanwhile, Weise is hoping that the Colorado Court of Appeals will call an emergency session and subsequently release the AECOM report regarding sulfur dioxide emissions. “Withholding data that impacts human lives is just so wrong,” said Orr.

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