Healthy Air is Healthy for Our Economy

Solar PV - by DVW

Published on August 12 in the ABQ Journal with the title "Don't Believe PNM Lie: EPA Will Save Lives"

Published on August 14 in the Santa Fe New Mexican with the title "Clean air is healthy for our economy"

By David Van Winkle and Adella Begaye

Labored breathing, coughing, burning lungs. If you’ve done outdoor activity on a hot day with bad air quality, you may know the feeling. For a child with asthma, those high-smog days can bring on suffocating attacks. For someone with respiratory or cardiovascular problems, they can be fatal.

That’s why the recent news is so welcome that one of our region’s biggest air polluters – the San Juan Generating Station – will have to dramatically reduce its emissions. On Friday, Aug. 5, the EPA announced that it will require the nearly 40-year-old coal-burning power plant near Farmington to cut its nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 80 percent.

Nitrogen oxide is one of the raw ingredients in ozone, the invisible chemical in smog that the American Lung Association calls “the most widespread pollutant in the U.S. [and] one of the most dangerous.” Ozone leads to asthma attacks, respiratory problems, lung damage, and even premature death. Nitrogen oxide is also an ingredient in fine particle pollution that penetrates deeply into the lungs.

The San Juan plant near Farmington dumps nearly 16,000 tons of nitrogen oxide into the air each year. If you add in emissions from the nearby 48-year-old Four Corners Power Plant – another of the nation’s dirtiest – the two account for at least two-thirds of all nitrogen oxide pollution in San Juan County and a quarter of the total statewide.

That outsized negative impact on our air is why requiring old coal plants to install overdue pollution controls is so important. Especially in the surrounding areas most affected by their pollution, such as on the Navajo Nation, we’ve seen the pollution linked to too many children and adults who need frequent medical attention for asthma and other respiratory problems.

The harm done to human health by these coal pollutants carries heavy financial costs. Asthma attacks, heart attacks, premature deaths and hospital visits from San Juan Generating Station’s pollution add up to an estimated $255 million a year in health care expenses that are passed on to the public, according to the independent Clean Air Task Force.

In its effort to keep San Juan Generating Station running without adequate pollution controls, PNM has greatly exaggerated the cost of the pollution controls – called selective catalytic reduction – that are needed to meet EPA’s nitrogen oxide limit. According to EPA, which bases its estimates on hundreds of other plants that have already installed this technology, it should cost $345 million to bring San Juan up to standard – one-third of the exaggerated costs PNM is claiming.

In fact, the billion-dollar cost estimate PNM is making up for installing selective catalytic reduction is nearly twice the highest cost on record for any previous installation of these controls. Given that PNM owns just under half the facility, the cost that it should really be putting forth publicly is about $160 million.

Compared to the toll on human health exacted by burning coal and the resulting $255 million in health-care savings that New Mexico residents would see, it makes perfect economic sense to simply bring San Juan up to the standards that other plants across the country already meet.

Ultimately, though, it makes even more sense to weigh any of these costs against the idea of beginning now to transition away from coal to clean and renewable energy sources.

Wind and solar are abundant in New Mexico and could provide significant job opportunities. Clean energy does not drain scarce water supplies like burning coal does, it has no cost implications for public health, and it avoids the millions needed to retrofit an old coal plant.

PNM’s continued reliance on coal isn’t saving us money — just the opposite. The company has raised rates 25 percent in the past three years and is proposing to raise rates another 20 percent over the next two.

These rate increases aren’t from renewable energy – PNM’s most recent quarterly report shows zero in capital expenditures for clean energy for the next four years. The utility keeps raising rates to cover the increasing costs of burning coal and running an aging coal plant. If it really put a priority on costs, PNM should be doing so much more to embrace energy efficiency programs that are industry-proven to save ratepayers money.

With energy rates going up because of coal, with health costs high because of coal, and with old coal plants like San Juan Generating Station requiring major expenditures to better protect health, isn’t it time now to generate more of our electricity from a clean source to begin with?

For so many kids and adults who have been breathing coal-plant pollution for generations – and for so many New Mexicans who’ve been paying for the increasing costs of coal – the answer to that question will mean a world of difference.

David Van Winkle is Energy Chair of the Rio Grande Chapter of Sierra Club and Supply Chair of the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy.

Adella Begaye has 20 years of experience as a registered nurse working on the Navajo Nation.