Haze of controversy: EPA must force stricter air quality controls in Wyoming, conservation groups say

After sparring in court over the first 10-year phase of the Regional Haze Program, state and federal regulators - along with environmental groups and industrial polluters - are preparing for battle in the next phase of the effort that is intended to gradually restore "natural visibility" at some 156 national parks and wilderness areas.

Wyoming's second-round "state implementation plan" awaits approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is expected to begin accepting public comment on the state's proposal sometime this summer.

Wyoming's plan, though, along with others submitted by Utah and North Dakota, doesn't go far enough to clear the air of haze-contributing industrial emissions, according to the Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association and the Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council.

While much of the emissions reduction focus remains on coal-fired power plants, the conservation groups want the EPA to push those states to include a "broader range" of industrial sources, such as cement manufacturing and oil and natural gas facilities. They also want the agency to insist on pollution controls at coal power plants that were not targeted in the initial phase of the regional haze reduction effort.

For example, the Wyodak plant near Gillette and Unit 4 at the Dave Johnston power plant near Glenrock - both operated by Rocky Mountain Power - do not include modern controls for nitrogen oxides, a pollutant that contributes to regional haze, Powder River Basin Resource Council attorney Shannon Anderson said.

"We missed out on pollution controls in round one and so we're hoping there will be additional controls going forward in round two for those units," Anderson said.

Meantime, Gov. Mark Gordon has vowed to fight against a series of new federal rules aimed at drastically cutting pollution from coal and other fossil fuels, which he describes as the Biden administration's "unrelenting attack on Wyoming's core industries." Gordon recently authorized the release of $300,000 from the state's $1.2 million "coal litigation fund" to support legal challenges against the administration's coal pollution rules, a proposal to end federal coal leasing in the Powder River River Basin, as well as a lawsuit targeting states that impose policies against the use of fossil fuels.

In recent months, Gordon has also touted some successes in pushing back against federal pollution reduction efforts, including a 2023 appeals court ruling that affirmed the state's position on regional haze efforts at two coal plants in the state.

Regional haze

The federal Regional Haze Program requires the restoration of "natural visibility" at national parks and wilderness areas across the country, recognizing that industrial emissions of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides obscure visibility across large regions of the U.S. and contribute to illness and premature deaths.

Regional haze, in a regulatory context, is the degradation of visibility via human-caused emissions that diminish the characteristics and enjoyment of a landscape, according to EPA. Groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association insist that haze also presents an economic threat to national parks and their gateway communities.

In Wyoming's case, it must develop an emissions reduction plan for industrial facilities in the state and their potential impact on nearby federal "Class 1" areas, whether those are within or outside the state's borders.

For example, emissions from the Naughton coal-fired power plant near Kemmerer may contribute to haze over Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as well as the Fitzpatrick, North Absaroka, Washakie and Teton wilderness areas. For the Wyodak plant near Gillette, emissions may impact viewsheds over the Badlands and Wind Cave national parks in South Dakota.

The federal Clean Air Act was amended in 1999 to include the Regional Haze Rule, which requires states to come up with their own emission reduction plans to comply with federal benchmarks. But Wyoming has frequently clashed with the EPA over its plans for how to achieve the program's goals.

Legal battles

Still wrangling over the first 10-year phase of the program, Wyoming joined Rocky Mountain Power in 2022 in pushing back against tougher regional haze emission reductions proposed by the EPA. The federal agency responded by threatening to force an early closure for two of four coal-burning power units at the Jim Bridger power plant east of Rock Springs.

The agency relented, though, and allowed the utility to forgo expensive emission controls and instead operate the units at a lower rate to achieve lower emissions of haze-contributing pollutants.

Rocky Mountain Power voluntarily shut down the two coal-burning units at the end of 2023 and is currently converting them to natural gas.

Wyoming also won a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in August, settling two separate disputes that were combined into one case before the court. Despite objections from the EPA - as well as conservation groups - the court upheld Wyoming's regional haze emissions reduction plans for Rocky Mountain Power's Wyodak coal-fired power plant near Gillette, as well as two coal-burning units at the company's Naughton plant near Kemmerer.

The ruling, Gordon said at the time, confirmed Wyoming's primacy to choose how it implements the federal regional haze program. Wyoming's preference for the second-phase of the implementation plan, still pending EPA's approval, includes lowering coal power plant operating capacities while pointing to utilities' plans to convert those units to natural gas.

Clearing the air

But counting on such plans is troublesome because utilities frequently change course, potentially foregoing actions necessary to achieve incrementally clearer skies over national parks and wilderness areas, according to Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter Director Rob Joyce.

"If the market changes in a couple of years, or politics change, I wouldn't be so sure that what's in the [state implementation] plan today is going to be in the plan tomorrow," Joyce said during a webinar event this week on the topic.

He noted that Rocky Mountain Power and its parent company PacifiCorp, for example, recently pushed back retirement dates for a pair of coal plants in Utah.

"When you get a strong regional haze ruling from the EPA," Joyce said, "that's something that we can actually leverage in the future and say, 'You need to be making reasonable emissions reductions here.'"

Other conservation representatives noted that the very nature of the Regional Haze Rule is to achieve incrementally clearer skies, which likely requires more restrictive emission reduction actions than in years past.

"What we strive for is a federally enforceable retirement date [for coal plants] in most places," said Natalie Levine, interim campaigns director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "So unless we get that mouthful of a federally enforceable retirement date in a state [regional] haze plan, we're depending on the goodness of the hearts of these companies to actually follow what they've said."

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