EPA backs off North Dakota haze reduction plan

North Dakota officials are cheering a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to bring their campaign for aggressive emission controls at a pair of coal-fired power plants to an end.

State officials announced on Friday that the EPA had agreed to approve the bulk of the state’s regional haze air quality plan, despite previously calling it inadequate and threatening to assume regulatory authority in the heavily coal-powered state.

It was immediately unclear what led the EPA to reverse its original position, but the decision followed a recent meeting between EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

The divide over what pollution controls should be used at coal-fired power plants in the state had led to serious tension between state and industry officials and the EPA. Local officials argued the EPA’s preferred technology was ill-suited for the lignite coal mined and burned in North Dakota and would cost at least $700 million.

The companies targeted for upgrades said the cost of meeting the EPA’s preferred technology could drive up energy rates for their customers as much as 25 percent.

State officials said on Friday that two companies targeted by the EPA – Minnkota Power Cooperative and Basin Electric Power Cooperative – will not have to use the technology originally recommended by the agency. But the companies will have to take some measures to meet the state’s plan to reduce the release of nitrogen oxides.

Officials are still working out the details of what technology should be used at two other coal plants, but an EPA official was quoted as saying the sides now agree on 90 percent of the state’s plan.

Environmental groups that had supported the EPA’s more aggressive pollution controls immediately expressed disappointment in the decision. Officials with the National Parks Conservation Association said they were evaluating their “full suite of options moving forward.”

The group previously sued the EPA after the agency proved slow to enforce the standards laid out in the Clean Air Act. The law required states to have plans to cut regional haze in place by 2008 in an effort to restore natural visibility at the country’s national parks and forest.

“NPCA is deeply disappointed that EPA has chosen to reverse course,” the NPCA said in a statement after the decision was announced. “This represents a missed opportunity to stem the damage that these facilities do to the health of local communities and the air quality at nationally-treasured places like Theodore Roosevelt National Park.”

But Sen. John Hoeven, who had fought the EPA’s plans, heralded the decision as a win for the state and local control.

“Our state has long demonstrated that we can promote strong economic growth and job creation, while doing a good job of protecting our air, land and water,” he said in a statement.

The EPA continues to work with several states to adopt regional haze plans. The agency announced in November that they would seek to finish approving plans by then end of this year and that they would give states five years to comply.

Drew Kerr is a Minneapolis-based freelance reporter. He can be reached at drewbkerr@gmail.com.

Photo by simplerich via Creative Commons

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