PacifiCorp continues to operate unit 2 at the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant despite running afoul of a federal regional haze permit — an infraction some believed would force a Jan. 1 shutdown. 

Gov. Mark Gordon, who recently attempted to intervene in the regulatory noncompliance, warned in late December the Environmental Protection Agency might force the unit to shut down on Jan. 1.

“In several short days, PacifiCorp will be forced to shut down Unit 2, lay off employees, and buy power to make up for the lost generation,” Gordon wrote in a Dec. 27 letter to EPA administrator Michael Regan declaring an emergency suspension order to block such an action. “That cost will be passed on to consumers in Wyoming and across the west creating a social and economic injustice.”

Since then, EPA has declined to say whether a shutdown is or ever was a possibility, while PacifiCorp says there are no plans to change operations at Jim Bridger unit 2 — one of four coal-fueled power generators at the plant.

“I won’t speculate on future determinations or actions,” EPA Region 8 spokesman Richard Mylott told WyoFile via email Tuesday.

EPA has also refused to say whether or not it will recognize or decline Gordon’s “emergency suspension order” seeking to block the federal agency from demanding a shutdown for noncompliance. If unchallenged, Gordon’s suspension order would remain in effect through April.

“EPA is reviewing the Governor’s action,” Mylott wrote. “Our primary focus, however, is continuing to work with the state and stakeholders to identify solutions that are consistent with the Clean Air Act, safeguard public health and air quality, and protect Wyoming’s workers and communities.”

The Berkshire Hathaway owned utility giant, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, claims that as of Jan. 1, it is operating unit 2 in compliance with a revised plan approved by the state but which remains in limbo at EPA.

“The entire Jim Bridger plant, including units 1 and 2, began operating under Wyoming’s revised state implementation plan emission limits on January 1, 2022,” PacifiCorp spokesperson Tiffany Erickson told WyoFile via email. “The lower NOx [nitrogen oxide] and SO2 [sulfur dioxide] emission limits apply during the four-month period of the governor’s suspension and beyond based on an air permit issued by the state of Wyoming.”

Meantime, Gordon has promised to file suit against EPA to force the agency into issuing a decision on the revised regional haze compliance strategy for the Jim Bridger power plant. EPA says it will issue a preliminary decision on the proposal and put it out for public comment — a process that is likely to exceed Gordon’s four-month suspension order, according to those close to the negotiations.

Job layoff claims raise questions for workers

The regulatory row between PacifiCorp, Wyoming and EPA is charged with claims that potential actions by EPA, as well as the forthcoming natural gas conversions of Jim Bridger units 1 and 2 in 2024, will result in layoffs.

In addition to Gordon’s own claims, his office commissioned a study by University of Wyoming professor of economics Timothy Considine. The modeling weighs the potential impacts of closing Jim Bridger unit 2 prior to the end of its “expected lifetime” in 2028, and suggests a total of 327 jobs lost in Sweetwater County.

Olivia Varley helps a customer at Varley Mercantile in Point of Rocks in October 2019. The combination gas station, bar, restaurant and trailer park, which is located off Interstate 80 near the coal-fired Jim Bridger Plant, is frequented by workers of the plant and associated mines. (RJ Pieper)

Considine didn’t respond to WyoFile requests for comment on this story. Critics have panned studies by Considine in the past, including one that estimated the potential impacts of President Joe Biden’s moratorium on federal oil and gas leasing, for allegedly playing to the energy industry’s preferences.

Wyoming AFL-CIO Executive Director Tammy Johnson questioned the validity of the Jim Bridger unit 2 study.

“The [Considine] study didn’t go beyond the scope of a model because if you talk to the workers and you talk to the people affected, then you’ll get a better picture,” Johnson said. “And I’m sorry that Mark Gordon’s team doesn’t value the input from the people who are most affected by these issues.”

PacifiCorp has assured union workers at both the Jim Bridger power plant and the Bridger surface mine that supplies coal to the plant — a combined workforce of about 887 — that any workforce reductions would be prioritized via attrition, retirement and job transfers, according to Johnson.

PacifiCorp confirmed it has agreed to prioritize any job reductions via attrition, retirement and potential transfers. “A natural gas conversion of Jim Bridger unit 2 would reduce the number of impacted employees” compared to a full shutdown and retirement, Erickson with PacifiCorp said. “However, union and non-union employees would still be impacted.”

“I won’t speculate on future determinations or actions.”

Richard Mylott, EPA Region 8 spokesman

Although union members do not want coal plants or coal mines shut down, they do expect more direct help and a more comprehensive plan from the state to help Wyoming workers face a transition that seems inevitable, Johnson said.

“Other states have offices of transition,” Johnson said. “And what better way — during this [federal stimulus] disbursement for these coal communities — for Mark Gordon to get on board with thinking about the workers and using some of that money to support workers.”

Emergency standoff, or failure to plan?

The regulatory standoff stems from ongoing negotiations over Wyoming’s “state implementation plan” to reduce nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and particulate matter — the main pollutants that contribute to regional haze — from industrial sources. The Jim Bridger power plant falls within several “Class 1” regional haze designations, which include Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

Wyoming has the primary regulatory responsibility for implementing the federal regional haze plan, and it had originally agreed to a schedule mandating that “selective catalytic reduction” controls be added to Jim Bridger unit 2 by end of 2021 and unit 1 by end of 2022.

But PacifiCorp never made preparations to add the controls. Instead, the utility and the state asked EPA to approve a revised plan to meet or exceed the regional haze pollution emissions reduction goals for the Jim Bridger plant by operating units 1 and 2 at lower capacities. In other words, they’d prefer to comply with the pollution limits by burning less coal and thus producing less exhaust instead of installing expensive equipment that would make the exhaust cleaner.

A workers’ tricycle at the Jim Bridger Plant. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Several environmental and conservation groups have objected to the revision proposed by Wyoming and PacifiCorp, and EPA has yet to issue a decision regarding the alternative plan. Meantime, PacifiCorp plans to convert units 1 and 2 from coal to natural gas in 2024. Their regulatory fate in the interim, however, remains uncertain.

Gordon’s emergency suspension order has no merit because PacifiCorp has had about eight years to comply with the current regional haze plan, according to Powder River Basin Resource Council attorney Shannon Anderson.

“It’s not an emergency shut down,” Anderson said. “It is a failure to plan for the inevitable.”

Gordon maintains that Wyoming, PacifiCorp and EPA “had a deal” to finalize the utility’s alternative method for meeting regional haze parameters and that EPA has recklessly failed to act. 

“PacifiCorp, EPA and Wyoming all agreed in 2020 that the regional haze guidelines would not only be met, but exceeded with the revised [state implementation plan],” Gordon said in a Dec. 27 press release. “Now, with that deal unilaterally abandoned by EPA, this emergency order is necessary to protect Wyoming workers from EPA’s recklessness.”

— The headline for this story has been updated for accuracy. — Ed

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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