EPA supports state revisions on haze rule; utilities still plan to reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions

Posted: January 30, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved Arkansas' plan to implement part of a federal rule designed to enhance visibility in national wilderness areas, the agency announced Monday, but it won't change utilities' plans for complying with the rule.

The agency approved the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's plan to reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions in the state, which is among the less contentious portions of the Regional Haze Rule.

The most contentious portion of the plan -- estimated by utilities to cost them more than $2 billion and estimated by the EPA to cost less than $500 million -- calls for the reduction of sulfur-dioxide emissions, for which the department has not finalized its changes. The public comment period on that part of the plan concludes Friday. The rule largely targets coal-fired power plants and other electricity-generating units.

The EPA already finalized a plan for implementing the Regional Haze Rule in Arkansas without the state's input after a federal judge's order that the EPA must create one because the state did not do so in a timely manner. That plan remains in effect, but the nitrogen-oxide and sulfur-dioxide emissions portions of it are under a court-ordered stay.

The federal plan uses the EPA's Best Available Retrofit Technology analyses to determine caps for each plant. The state's method would drop those analyses in favor of the EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which calls for lower future caps on emissions. The state is already subject to that rule during summer months.

In its decision posted in the Federal Register, the EPA agreed with the department's argument that it could accomplish its requirements for haze by using the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. But it noted that the rule can only be used in Arkansas' plan if the EPA finalizes its findings that the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is a better tool than Best Available Retrofit Technology.

Utilities have already moved to comply with the nitrogen oxide portion of the Regional Haze Rule. Required to install low-nitrogen oxide burners on its coal plants by mid-2018 under the federal plan, Entergy Arkansas has already purchased the $18 million equipment for its White Bluff coal plant near Redfield and its Independence coal plant near Newark.

Entergy Arkansas spokesman Kerri Case said Monday that the utility still plans to install the burners.

The utility also said it was looking forward to "a continued productive relationship" with the EPA on other aspects of the haze plan.

Southwestern Electric Power Company and the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives long ago purchased the equipment for the Flint Creek coal plant near Gentry. The utilities estimate completing their installation in May.

Uncertainty about litigation over Regional Haze and other air regulations pushed the utilities to install anyway, said Carey Sullivan, a spokesman for Southwestern Electric Power Company.

Entergy Arkansas representatives did not provide comment to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Monday's announcement or to clarify their progress on installing low-nitrogen oxide burners.

Monday's announcement aligns with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's goal to reduce the number of federal plans for states to implement regulations and replace them with plans drafted by the states themselves. The EPA has replaced at least one federal implementation plan with a state implementation plan every month, according to Monday's news release.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Sen. John Boozman, Sen. Tom Cotton, Rep. Steve Womack, Rep. Bruce Westerman, Arkansas Environmental Quality Department Director Becky Keogh and new EPA Region 6 Administrator Anne Isdal were all quoted in the announcement as supporting the agency's decision. Many praised the EPA's decision as a sign of a reversal of the EPA's "heavy-handed" nature under former President Barack Obama and former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

"Arkansas's plan guarantees that our state will continue to achieve reasonable progress," Keogh said in the news release. "We look forward to continued cooperation and engagement with EPA on state-based solutions."

The Sierra Club is one of the groups that sued to get the federal plan in place.

Glen Hooks, executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club, called the state's plan "weak" in comparison and expressed dismay at the state and EPA's characterization of past EPA leadership that drafted the plan.

"It's a shame to see federal and state officials casting aspersions on the previous process -- all the while ignoring the state agency's significant role in delaying clean air protections for Arkansans and residents of nearby states," Hooks said in a statement.

"The notion that a federal regional haze plan was 'imposed' on Arkansas is ridiculous," he continued.

The Regional Haze Rule, approved by Congress in 1999, requires Arkansas to take measures to improve visibility at national wilderness areas.

The difference between the state plan and the federal one is that the federal plan requires emissions controls on specific power plants, while the state plan allows utilities in Arkansas to trade emissions allowances and credits during the summer, when air quality tends to be worse.

Utilities favored the state's changes to the plan, citing the flexibility the changes would offer. Environmental advocates opposed them, arguing the changes would allow higher-emitting plants to continue emitting at the same levels so long as utilities cut emissions elsewhere.

While environmental groups tout the potential impact on human health of the lower emissions, the Regional Haze Rule only considers improvements to visibility at 64 national wilderness areas.

The wilderness areas targeted by the Arkansas plan are Caney Creek and the Upper Buffalo River in Arkansas and the Hercules-Glades and Mingo in Missouri.

Metro on 01/30/2018