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September 16, 2014

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Coal plant debate intensifies

In Ely, feelings about the environment and the economy overwhelm the agenda

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Sam Morris

White Pine County Commission Chairman Brent Eldridge makes a statement in favor of the proposed Ely Energy Center during a meeting Jan. 9 on the Nevada Environmental Protection Division’s draft air permit for the 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Ely. More than 200 people turned out for the meeting.

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Tim Wagner of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter speaks against the Ely Energy Center. If the plant is built, he said, it will provide power for Las Vegas but “we’re going to kill people in Salt Lake City for it.”

The fight over construction of a coal-fired power plant here focuses a national debate against the backdrop of a rural, high-desert town.

Some people see the larger issues, including global warming and the future of America’s energy supply.

But for others it’s very personal, pitting neighbors against one another.

That includes the more than 200 people who turned out for a public meeting here this month to alternately laud and condemn the plant, which is proposed by the state’s biggest utility company.

About half of them spoke passionately about their future, and how the plant would ignite an economic rebirth of an area that has grown stagnant.

The other half spoke passionately about their future, too -- and their fear that the plant would threaten their health and jeopardize wildlife.

Little wonder, then, that public meetings in White Pine County involving power company executives, government environmental officials and the federal Bureau of Land Management have grown more contentious over the past year.

This month’s meeting was supposed to focus on the air pollutants regulated by state and federal law -- sulfur, nitrogen and particulates.

But the audience wanted to talk instead about how the plant would accelerate global warming or, on the other hand, boost the region’s payroll.

During the four-hour hearing, state officials said the plant, proposed by Sierra Pacific Resources -- the owner of Nevada Power Co. -- will meet current environmental law.

But critics weren’t moved.

“I don’t want my grandson to be some kind of scientific meter for pollutants,” said Robert Hume of Ely, his eyes bright and wet. He held the microphone with a shaking hand, straining to rise above the din of shuffled chairs and tired children in the convention center, one of Ely’s spiffier buildings.

The 1,500-megawatt plant would burn about 8 million tons of coal each year and emit, unregulated, about 10 million tons of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that causes global warming. For now, the plant would have no pollution controls for carbon.

The state says ozone levels near the plant would increase to 96 percent of the federally allowed levels.

In nearby Great Basin National Park and the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which have stricter air standards, the Ely plant would help boost large particulate pollution in the air to 86 percent of the allowed level, nitrogen dioxide to 20 percent and sulfur dioxide to 35 percent at some times.

Paul DePrey, acting superintendent of Great Basin National Park, predicts the plant will mar views in the park, which he said has the cleanest air of any national park in the continental United States.

The company, however, says it has drastically reduced mercury, nitrogen, sulfur and particulate emissions, in most cases by more than 90 percent compared with older coal plants.

Several dozen Utahans, whose chartered bus from Salt Lake City was paid for in part by a biodiesel company, complained that air pollution would reach their state, adding to deaths already attributed to coal-fired power plants and discouraging their tourism to White Pine County.

Their presence at the meeting seemed to galvanize local resistance to the out-of-staters’ “downwinder” arguments. Utah gets about 90 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, compared with 20 percent in Nevada. If Ely Energy Center is constructed, Nevada will get more than 45 percent of its power from coal by 2015.

“If Utah is that concerned about our emissions they need to go back to Utah and speak with their power producers,” said John Chachas, chairman of the Steptoe Valley Energy Advocates and a supporter of the plant. “We all want to be good neighbors and friends while we’re trying to survive economically.”

More than 24,000 deaths each year are attributed to emissions from coal-fired power plants in the United States, according the National Resources Defense Council, and environmental group.

“Health is much more important than jobs,” said Tim Wagner, conservation coordinator for the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We may be creating 150 jobs in White Pine County to burn coal to generate electricity for Las Vegas, but we’re going to kill people in Salt Lake City for it.”

But those jobs -- and what the construction of a power plant would mean for Ely businesses -- were the life-and-death issue for others at the meeting.

The political and business establishment of White Pine County -- the county commission, the Ely City Council, the local chamber of commerce -- is galvanized behind the project. Members say it would return the town to the days when it thrived with full employment -- before environmental regulations forced Kennecott Utah Copper and its smoke-belching smelter from town.

The copper mines have reopened under new ownership. But the smelter in McGill, 15 miles north of Ely, still sits as a reminder of the days of the company town. Today one of the largest employers in the county is the state prison in Ely.

“While Kennecott was blowing smoke, (Ely) was a prosperous town. There was good employment. The town had good lifestyles. The city was twice what it is now in population. The county was twice what it is now,” said Ken Kliewer of White Pine County. “We’ve been in an economic slump and we need a good opportunity to get back on our feet.”

The plant is awaiting final approval of its air permit from the state Environmental Protection Division and is undergoing an environmental review by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

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