Smoke stacks at three of the four Jim Bridger Plant coal-fired electrical generating units. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

PacifiCorp could be forced to shut down one of four coal-burning units at the Jim Bridger power plant at year’s end unless it is granted more time to comply with federal haze standards, according to landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council.

Alternatively, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could head off a closure by approving proposed revisions to Jim Bridger’s regional haze plan. 

Neither PacifiCorp nor the EPA has indicated that a shutdown is imminent.

PacifiCorp, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, has so far failed to install “selective catalytic reduction” technology at Jim Bridger units 1 and 2 to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. The pollutant contributes to regional haze. SCR installation is a primary condition of Jim Bridger’s federal emissions permit, PRBRC attorney Shannon Anderson said.

The deadline to install the controls is end of 2021 for Unit 2, and end of 2022 for Unit 1.

Meantime, Wyoming will sue EPA for its alleged failure to act on Rocky Mountain Power’s proposed revisions to the regional haze plan for Jim Bridger, Gov. Mark Gordon said in a Nov. 15 “notice of intent” letter. Those revisions would remove the SCR controls requirement. 

Gordon chastised EPA, accusing it of intentionally imposing higher energy costs, undermining grid reliability and threatening Wyoming jobs while working against more effective actions to curb environmental impacts. “And for what?” he wrote EPA. “Shallow talking points on the international stage?”

Workers at the Jim Bridger Plant near Rock Springs collect parts and equipment for a job on a coal grinder in September 2019. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Rocky Mountain Power  believes it will remain in compliance with its federal emissions permit despite not installing the SCR technology, according to a spokesman.

“Our objective continues to be to maintain compliance and operate Jim Bridger units 1 and 2 until 2024, at which time they would be converted to use natural gas fuel,” Rocky Mountain Power spokesman David Eskelsen told WyoFile via email. “We are also committed to work constructively with both the state of Wyoming on their state implementation plan, and with EPA on resolving this regulatory issue.”

The row between Wyoming and EPA over regional haze dates back more than a decade. As the federal agency has revised standards aimed at curbing emissions, Wyoming coal-fired electrical power producers have recalculated the return-on-investment and ratepayer implications of adding emission controls to meet regional haze requirements.

Regional haze regulation

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. 

EPA’s regional haze program focuses on reducing industrial emissions to help clear viewsheds, particularly in national parks and wilderness areas. The Jim Bridger power plant falls within several “Class 1” regional haze designations, which include Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

That proximity and potential to contribute to diminished viewsheds obligates Jim Bridger’s operator to meet tailored emission standards for nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and particulate matter — the main industrial pollutants that contribute to regional haze.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality holds primacy over implementing the federal Clean Air Act in the state, and serves as intermediary between industrial emitters and EPA. In other words, EPA sets baseline or minimum standards and Wyoming DEQ works with federal permittees in the state about how to meet or exceed them.

Long regulatory row

EPA in 2014 approved Wyoming DEQ’s “state implementation plan,” which outlined how Jim Bridger and other coal-fired power plants in the state would meet emission reductions to comply with EPA’s regional haze goals. But the plan has been in litigation since, with the state and Rocky Mountain Power asking to revise the plan and conservation groups encouraging EPA to stick with more stringent controls.

Gov. Mark Gordon speaks during a news conference Nov. 15, 2021 at the state Capitol. (Jasmine Hall/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

In addition to installing “low-NOx burners,” the 2014 plan called for installing selective catalytic reduction, or SCR, technology to further reduce NOx emissions. Rocky Mountain Power installed SCR — and other emission controls — at Jim Bridger Units 3 and 4, which are scheduled to remain in operation until 2037. However, it has not installed SCR controls at units 1 and 2.

Both units 1 and 2 are scheduled to be converted from coal to natural gas in 2024, pending state approval. 

Despite the 2024 conversion dates for units 1 and 2, the row over regional haze regulations has implications for other coal units in the state, Anderson said. “So the decision for SCR [at Jim Bridger] is not moot.” 

PRBRC is one of several parties involved in ongoing litigation, as well as negotiations under a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals mediation process. Gordon’s notice of intent to sue EPA indicates that those negotiations might not result in a solution anytime soon, Anderson said. Gordon’s notice, and his chastising tone, “just takes us a step backwards from a deal that could be reached.”

Gordon blames Biden administration

Rocky Mountain Power’s proposed alternative would involve operating the coal units at lower capacities, according to Anderson. Without going into details of the proposal, Gordon said it is far more effective and cost-efficient than installing SCR technology, “at $349 per ton compared to a whopping $4,744 per ton for SCR.

“Moreover,” Gordon continued, “the visibility enhancing emission limits would actually result in greater visibility improvement than SCR.”

EPA has not indicated any deficiencies in the alternative backed by Wyoming and Rocky Mountain Power, Gordon said. Wyoming DEQ reviewed Rocky Mountain Power’s proposal and forwarded it to EPA for its review in May 2020. EPA notified Wyoming DEQ it had reviewed the proposal and gave it initial approval in November 2020, yet the approval was never published in the Federal Register, he said.

“After the change in administrations,” Gordon wrote, “EPA decided to ignore the decision of the Regional Administrator, and reconsider his prior approval.”

“Gov. Gordon’s description of the history of PacifiCorp’s alternative compliance option for Wyoming’s state implementation plan is accurate,” Eskelsen said. “The company has always been committed to strict compliance with environmental regulations at our facilities as the requirements have developed over time.”

“EPA intends to issue a proposed decision on this plan revision for public comment in the near future,” EPA Region 8 spokesman Richard Mylott told WyoFile via email. “EPA notes that the State’s revision would remove long standing requirements that the Jim Bridger power plant install modern controls to limit its visibility- and health-harming nitrogen oxides pollution, and does not address PacifiCorp’s current plan to convert Jim Bridger units 1 and 2 to natural gas in 2023.”

— This story was updated Nov. 19 to include comments from EPA Region 8. — Ed.

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Dustin Bleizeffer

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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  1. Neither of Wyomings two industries, coal and oil, would be able to break even, much less show a clear profit, if they had to pay for the environmental damage they cause. Wind and solar, on the other hand, if left alone by the Wyoming Legislature, could make a fair profit, without any real environmental damage at all.
    We can expect to see yet more tax breaks and subsidies for coal and gas from Wyoming in the weeks and years to follow.

  2. How about the mountains of fly ash and dirt from open pit mining that surround the Jim Bridger plant? Very little reclamation going on at that plant if any. It is in their lease that they are “bound” to reclaim the disturbed land surrounding the plant. Have you ever seen any equipment on those spoil piles? no, because they are “spoil”ed piles. And as mentioned here, the trona mines and their surface facilities emit a whole bunch of noxious gas out over the Red Desert.

  3. Rocky Mountain Power has never been a good neighbor. One example, if you use natural gas to heat your home, run your oven, etc., you have an annual choice as to your natural gas provider–they are all on the same network of pipelines. Similarly, all electric generation companies are on the grid but we cannot choose to have an electricity provider–if you live in RMP’s “territory” you are forced to connect to RMP, even if you could opt to purchase cleaner, less costly alternatives. And lest we forget, this is the company that, when purchased by Berkshire Hathaway, did away with pensions for our neighbors, and are working hand in glove with our captive, FRW state legislature to disallow the closure of dirty coal (is there any other kind?) burning power plants, but rather require them to be sold to extremely inefficient out of state providers who will continue to run them to the detriment of ratepayers and oxygen breathers….

  4. Local DEQ offices are handcuffed by the state administrator. It doesn’t surprise me that they washed their hands of the decision and kicked it to the regional EPA office in Denver.

    During the last oil/gas boom, local DEQ offices would try to hold producers accountable for exceeding their alloted emissions on stationary sources (compressors, pumpjacks, gathering facilities, etc) by performing random spot checks throughout the state. If a producer was found to be exceeding their emissions limit, as stated in their stationary source permit, they would be issued a notice of violation (NOV). if they received an NOV, they would have 10 days to correct the issue and would also be issued a monetary fine. Producers would “correct” the issue long enough to pass a reference method emissions test that they could submit to the state. Once that was complete, the State DEQ administrator in Cheyenne would forgive any fine that was previously issued. There was no consequence to a producer exceeding their emissions limit except for the minor hassle of performing an emissions test outside of their annual testing requirements.

    Pacificorp knows it is easier and cheaper for them to operate outside of their emissions requirements then to spend the money required to be fully compliant with their permitting.

  5. Meanwhile the gov is threatening to waste millions of scarce Wyoming resources for another loser lawsuit…

  6. Jim Bridger has never made a good faith effort to control emissions. For years they have been a poor corporate neighbor. If companies had utilized best availabe technology in the past, we wouldn’t be in such a critical climate crisis. The only unreasonable players are greedy corporate neighbors like them.

  7. I believe there are pollution/haze coming from the Bridger valley/trona mines than those coming from the Jim Bridger power plant. Has anyone bothered to look at that!

  8. Good article. Here is a link to the EPA’s website on NO2 emissions and their impact on haze and health – It’s worth noting the these emissions can (and likely do) contribute to ground level ozone which correlates directly to increased adverse health risks for people with asthma and heart conditions. Ozone has long been a big problem in Sublette county and reducing NO2 emissions, whether by SCR or reducing generating outputs, is a goal worth achieving.