The Daily Sentinel
NUCLA – Sitting in a computerized control room, John Martinez can keep a close eye on the operations of the Nucla Station as the coal-fired plant’s turbines churn out electricity to the surrounding region.
The outlook for his own future – and that of tiny Nucla and nearby communities – is a lot less clear, however, following Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s recent announcement of a regional-haze agreement under which it would shut down the 100-megawatt plant by the end of 2022. Also to be closed would be Tri-State’s nearby New Horizon Mine, which supplies the western Montrose County plant.
Martinez considered himself lucky when he landed the power-plant job after previously having done resort-region construction work. He hopes to avoid having to return to that kind of work.
“I really don’t want to commute to Telluride if I don’t have to,” he said.
But the local job options could be pretty limited in far-western Montrose County once two of its major employers close their doors, eliminating what are currently 55 jobs at the plant and 28 at the mine.
“Nobody’s going to be free from the impact of that shutdown,” said Breck Richards, a Nucla native whose family owns Tri-Park Corp., a Nucla trucking company that hauls and buries coal ash from the mine. “It’s a lot like it was when Union Carbide shut down in the early ‘80s. It will devastate the area for quite a while.”
Union Carbide’s shutdown of its uranium mill northwest of Nucla left behind little more than a roadside sign along Colorado Highway 141 to explain the history of what had been the community of Uravan.
But people like Nucla Mayor Dawna Morris are already hard at work on ways to avoid a similar fate for this town of fewer than 700 people. Efforts already have been ongoing for years to bring in new business, and it helps that, according to Morris, a lot of people are determined to stay there.
“We’ll see how it goes,” she said of the town’s economic development efforts.
The Nucla closings are part of a broader agreement under which one of three generating units at the Craig Station coal-fired plant near Craig would be closed by the end of 2025. That station is operated by Tri-State, and owned by utilities including Tri-State, Xcel Energy, PacifiCorp, Platte River Power Authority and the Salt River Project. While the 427-megawatt Unit 1 would be closed, two other units in what is currently a 1,300-megawatt plant would continue to operate.
Craig’s Unit 1 and the Nucla Station also would be subject to stricter emission limits starting in 2020.
The agreement was reached recently with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, WildEarth Guardians and the National Parks Conservation Association, and would revise what’s called the Colorado Visibility and Regional Haze State Implementation Plan. It’s subject to EPA and state review, including by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the state legislature.
The agreement modifies an earlier legal settlement with WildEarth Guardians and the National Parks Conservation Association under which Tri-State and its partners had agreed to upgrade pollution controls at Craig Station to reduce haze in national parks and wilderness areas. The two groups earlier had sued the EPA after it approved the state haze plan, required by federal law to reduce haze and improve views in such backcountry areas.
The new agreement is being praised by the two conservation groups and by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as one that will not only cut haze but result in the public breathing cleaner air and emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide being reduced. It’s expected to cut carbon emissions by some 4 million to 5 million tons per year, which WildEarth Guardians says is like taking about a million cars off the road.
“We are very thrilled to see the carbon reductions,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians.
Dismay over newsThe announcement of the impending demise of the Nucla plant and mine has angered some elected officials, including Montrose County Commissioner Glen Davis and state Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. Among their concerns are the loss of high-paying jobs in a region where there are few jobs to begin with, and potential impacts to the county’s West End Public School District. Coram fears it could be forced to close, or at the least require a lot of backfill funding from the state.
Coram plans to fight the agreement when it reaches the point of legislative review, although he said he faces an uphill battle given the low number of rural lawmakers in Colorado.
“I’m not optimistic but I will give it my full effort, I guarantee you that,” he said. “ . Our lives matter and I want the rest of the state to know that every action that you take has a reaction, and sometimes they’re devastating for a community.”
Coram and Davis both question what environmental benefit shutting down Nucla Station will have.
“The effect of what happens here on regional haze is a pinhead on a basketball. It is not going to do anything for the regional haze. In proportion, it is minuscule,” said Coram, who thinks CDPHE pressured Tri-State to accept the agreement.
Davis said he knows some coal plants need to be cleaned up, but he disputes the idea that haze will be reduced on the Front Range by getting rid of a plant in Montrose County “that doesn’t produce it.”
“I have yet to drive into that (San Miguel River) valley and see anything coming out of that plant,” he said. “I’m just asking people to come to the table and use a little common sense. I don’t know, maybe common sense isn’t that common.”
Nichols said state modeling shows the Nucla Station affects haze levels at Arches and Canyonlands national parks and the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado. The Craig Station contributes to haze in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, he said.
Wolk said the agreement will result in “pretty significant reductions” in haze. When combined with other steps taken to address power plant pollution in the state, “the pieces are starting to add up” in controlling emissions and reducing respiratory problems, he said.
He said it’s not an urban-specific concern that’s driving such efforts.
“I can tell you, some of these air pollutants affect the folks living in rural communities as much as they do people living in the urban corridor,” he said.
People such as Coram and Richards, the trucking contractor, are concerned about Tri-State succumbing to legal pressure originating from environmental groups. U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, worried in a news release following the announced deal about “sue and settle” tactics by these groups that show “complete disregard for the families who rely on mining and power generation to put food on their tables,” not to mention for the consumers who rely on that power.