Tri-State Generation and Transmission announced Thursday that it will close the Nucla Station power plant and the nearby New Horizon Mine, which supplies coal to the plant, by the end of 2022 under an agreement aimed at making deep cuts in air pollution.
The agreement stems from a 2012 lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians, a Santa Fe-based environmental group, over Colorado’s plan to meet federal rules for reducing haze. The agreement also calls for the shutdown of one of three units of the company’s coal-fired power plant in Craig by the end of 2025.
The company employs 83 workers at the two Nucla operations, according to Lee Boughey, Tri-State senior manager of communications and public affairs. About 283 people work at the company’s Craig Station, but the company doesn’t yet know how many jobs will be affected, he said.
“It’s a tough week for a lot of folks,” Boughey said, adding that 55 people are employed at the Nucla power station and 28 people work at the New Horizons mine.
Boughey said the company is still in the process of determining the timeline for eliminating its Nucla workforce. The company is the largest employer in Nucla, which has an estimated population of 711, according to the 2010 census.
“The company is putting together a transition team that is going to be looking at a number of issues, including the needs of the employees, the needs of the community and the retirement process, and how we will decommission Nucla Station,” he said.
“We will still produce power at Nucla Station during that period,” Boughey said. “How we will handle the transitional issues with the work force have yet to be determined.”
Once active mining of coal is completed, the company will begin reclamation efforts at the mine, he said.
“The (six-year) time frame to 2022 gives us time to work on these issues and put together the best plan possible in a difficult situation,” Boughey said.
The news is hitting the western Montrose County community hard.
“Nucla’s liable to dry up and blow away,” town trustee Dorothy Reed told the Associated Press. “The power plant and coal mine, that’s about all we got.”
Montrose County Commissioner Glen Davis said the Nucla closures will be particularly devastating to public schools in Nucla and Naturita. The county school system and other public services are highly dependent on the estimated $470,000 in taxes generated annually by Tri-County, he said.
Davis said he participated in a conference call Friday morning with state elected officials who were just as bewildered as he was over not being involved in settlement talks among the company, the state public health department, the EPA and WildEarth Guardians.
Davis said he and others have been suggesting that Tri-County keep the Nucla power facility open by converting it to a natural-gas facility, to no avail.
“We’re upset,” he said. “Nobody in the area has been involved in the (settlement) meetings. We felt we should’ve had a seat at the table.”
What’s hard to understand, he said, is the announcement that the Nucla Station’s closure will lead to a reduction in haze. The station is considered one of the most environmentally friendly power plants in the world, according to Davis and other sources.
“There’s no haze there now,” Davis said. “You don’t have to lie to me. We know that you want coal gone.”
State health officials said the agreement is expected to reduce haze, cut carbon dioxide emissions by up to 4 million tons per year and remove thousands of pounds of other pollutants that contribute to ozone or cause health problems.
WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols told the Craig Daily Press that the shutdown is indicative of the coal industry’s overall decline.
“The writing on the wall is that the future for coal is really bleak,” he said. “This is a very concrete example of where things are going.”
Will Allison, director of the state Department of Public Health and Environment’s control division, said the agreement will cut emissions from the state’s coal-fired power plants by about 9 percent.
“Clean air and clean energy are nothing new to Coloradans,” Allison said in a prepared statement. “Colorado and other parts of our country already are experiencing some of the effects of a changing climate. Reducing carbon dioxide and other emissions, along with our previous and ongoing efforts to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas, are important strategies in our efforts to ensure clean air.”
Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the state public health department, said the collaborative agreement is another step toward ensuring that Colorado “has the cleanest air in the nation.”
“These emission reductions will help lower ozone levels that contribute to respiratory illnesses such as asthma. The reductions also will reduce haze and improve visibility in our national parks and wilderness areas,” Wolk said.
Following the announcement, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R.-Cortez, issued a statement. Tipton said he is increasingly concerned about the role that “third-party groups” play in state and federal regulatory matters.
“This ‘sue and settle’ tactic has shown complete disregard for the families who rely on mining and power generation to put food on their tables — not to mention the thousands of households that rely on the stations for affordable and reliable power,” Tipton said.
The congressman, who is seeking reelection in Colorado’s sprawling 3rd District, which includes most of the Western Slope, said the state worked hard to submit a plan to the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce regional haze. WildEarth Guardians filed suit after the federal agency approved the plan, setting the stage for the settlement.
“… These third-party groups brought a lawsuit against the EPA without regard for the efforts made at the local, state and federal levels to ensure compliance with the federal regulation,” Tipton said. “It’s no secret that American coal production and coal-fired power generation are striving to meet regulatory and legal obstacles at every turn, but instead of encouraging adaptation and compliance, these third-party groups are only destroying jobs to further their radical agendas, putting families out of work, eliminating vital tax revenues for schools and raising the cost of electricity on those who can least afford it.”
Tri-State CEO Mike McInnes said the company has worked tirelessly to preserve its ability to responsibly use coal to produce reliable and affordable power, which makes the decision to retire coal-fired power-generating units “all the more difficult.”
“Nucla Station and New Horizon Mine have been a source of pride since joining the Tri-State family,” McInnes said in a news release. “Our employees have been exemplary in their hard work and stewardship, and the communities of Nucla and Naturita have been steadfast in their support.”
Tri-State is the sole owner of the 100-megawatt Nucla Station, the world’s first utility-scale power plant to utilize circulating fluidized-bed combustion, a method that reduces emissions and improves the rate of energy. The plant originally was constructed in 1959.
Tri-State, a not-for-profit entity that supplies wholesale power to 43 electric cooperatives and public power districts serving 1 million consumers in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming, acquired the plant and the mine in 1992.