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September 18, 2014

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We all need power, but in Mesquite, priority is clean air

Hundreds of people are expected to rally tonight at Mesquite City Hall in opposition to construction of a coal-fired power plant in nearby Lincoln County, in the latest showdown over Nevada’s energy future.

Coal-fired power developers argue that the increasing energy demands of growing Nevada and the rest of the Southwest make more of their plants necessary.

On the other side, scientists and environmentalists clamor over global warming and down-winders worry over health effects from pollution. These same battles have led to the abandonment, postponement or regulatory denial of dozens of coal-fired plants in other states.

Mesquite resident Linda Faas is hoping to see a similar outcome in Nevada.

“This is absolutely the biggest issue that faces Mesquite, and my future,” said the retiree who does volunteer work for Defend Our Desert.

“We’re a resort town populated by a high percentage of seniors who want clean air — they need clean air.”

But no matter how many opponents demonstrate against the plant, proposed for a site about 12 miles northwest of Mesquite and about 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, no matter how vehemently they argue that climate change, cancer and haze are the products of coal-fired power, it may not matter to the state.

Tonight’s protest is to precede a Nevada Environmental Protection Division hearing on the draft air permit for the 750-megawatt Toquop Energy Project. The division, which regulates pollutants such as sulfur and nitrogen, will take public comments tonight.

The plant’s developers say it will meet state and federal requirements, according to division spokesman Dante Pistone.

“Do the proposed emissions from this plant meet all current state and federal air quality standards? That’s the question we have to deal with,” Pistone said.

Global warming-causing carbon dioxide emissions aren’t regulated by Nevada or the federal government. Although division officials have said they have the right to regulate them, they have also said it will take at least a year or two to write the regulations.

A lack of such regulations didn’t stop Kansas from denying permits last year, but that kind of political will is absent in Nevada.

Toquop will emit almost 6 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. The plant will produce about the same amount of carbon per megawatt hour of electricity produced as the Mohave Generating Station, according to the Toquop project’s Web site. The Mohave station, partly owned by Nevada Power Co., was shut down for pollution violations in 2005.

There is no commercially available technology to reduce carbon emissions, aside from burning coal more efficiently, according to developers.

The plant will also emit more than 1,200 tons of sulfur dioxide, 1,600 tons of nitrogen oxide and 900 tons of particulates a year, all regulated by a state air permit.

Frank Maisano of the Washington law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, a spokesman for plant developer Sithe Global, said the plant will be one of the cleanest in the nation. It was originally approved by the state and the federal government as an 1,100-megawatt natural gas-fired plant, but Sithe abandoned those plans because of the volatile price of the fuel.

Although Toquop will provide only 70 percent of the energy of the originally planned plant, the coal version will have more emissions.

Twenty-three environmental groups and two Indian tribes have filed comments with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land where the plant would be located, opposing the plant. Those groups plan to submit comments to the state regarding the draft air permit, too.

Mayor Susan M. Holecheck and the Mesquite City Council also oppose the plant. Holecheck said Toquop would be only 12 miles from Mesquite, which is in Clark County, but the plant would be in Lincoln County, which would get the tax benefits.

But developers and Lincoln County Commission Chairwoman Ronda Hornbeck say Mesquite will benefit economically from the plant, too.

Maisano said one advantage of building new coal plants, in addition to meeting the growing energy demand in the Southwest, is to replace older, less efficient and more polluting coal plants.

It remains unclear who will buy the power from the Toquop plant. Sithe is a merchant power developer, which means it is not owned by a utility and will sell the power on the open market.

Tom Johns, senior vice president of development for Sithe, said the company cannot enter into long-term contracts with utilities such as Nevada Power Co. until it has state and federal approval to build the plant. But he said the plant is likely to sell power to utilities in Southern Nevada and Arizona and to rural electric cooperatives that power much of eastern Nevada.

Sithe plans to pump water to the site from a nearby well and build a 30-mile rail spur from Union Pacific’s main line. The plant would use about 8 million tons of coal each year.

Holecheck has urged developers to move the plant closer to the railroad. But the company chose its site in part because it is near roads and has access to both a natural gas pipeline to supply its boiler igniters and transmission lines to get its power to the grid, Johns said. It would be much more expensive to build elsewhere, he said.

The plant would use a maximum of 2,500 acre-feet of water a year, he said, but the state engineer has permitted only 2,100. Johns said the plant would be designed to operate with only 2,100 acre-feet if the additional 400 aren’t approved. And the plant could use municipal ground water from a planned residential development in the future, he added.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has expressed concern about the plant’s effect on ground-water resources and wildlife. The agency’s comments to the Bureau of Land Management, which issued a draft environmental review of the project last year, included concern about the amount of greenhouse gases the plant will emit. Not building the plant would be equivalent to removing 1.4 million cars from the roads, the comments said.

The EPA, like environmentalists and local opposition groups, also urges Sithe to consider developing wind, geothermal or solar resources instead of coal.

“We are actually in favor of nonpolluting or less polluting energy sources,” said Lin Alder of Citizens for Dixie’s Future, a Utah environmental group.

Several Utah groups have spoken against the plant and plan to protest tonight because they say pollution will blow into their state.

“We believe the natural gas plant (that was) permitted is a much better option, one which would produce more power for Nevada and send fewer people to the hospital in Utah,” Alder said.

Power plant developers, including Johns and Maisano, have been critical of the claim that the three coal-fired plants proposed in Nevada, two of them in White Pine County, will pollute Utah air. That state gets about 85 percent of its power from coal.

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