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Power plant's lack of 'elbow room' means likely shutdown in 2015

CASTLE GATE, Carbon County — One of Utah's most prominent industrial landmarks may be on the verge of a permanent shutdown, done in by its own scenic setting.

Rocky Mountain Power has warned employees and public officials to expect the likely closure of the company's Carbon Power Plant in the next two to three years.

"It's probable," company spokesman Dave Eskelsen said Monday. "I think people need to be prepared for that."

The plant is one of Rocky Mountain Power's most visible facilities. It's in a narrow, twisty canyon known as Castle Gate, north of Helper at the junction of U.S. Highway 6 and U.S. Highway 191. Thousands of drivers pass by the plant every day as they travel between Price and Provo.

The Carbon Power Plant was built in the canyon in the 1950s because there is a healthy supply of coal nearby. But now, hemmed in by cliffs and highways, it doesn't have enough elbow room to expand. That means the company may be unable to install equipment to bring the plant in line with federal clean air regulations.

A cleanup deadline is looming in the year 2015 for reductions in emissions of mercury, nitrogen-oxides, sulfur-dioxide and particles of ash.

"There's simply not enough room in the canyon here to install the scrubber (and) the fabric filter that would be required to allow it to operate past the deadline," Eskelsen said.

Rocky Mountain Power is still looking for alternative technologies that might allow the plant to meet federal regulations. But the prospects don't look good.

"We can't see a compliance option that is cost-effective for customers at this point in time," Eskelsen said.

The probable closure is "not a pleasant prospect for the state of Utah," said Carbon County Commissioner John Jones. "I mean it's not only going to affect us, but you're going to see the economy across the state affected."

But the likely shutdown in 2015 wins applause from Matt Pacenza of HEAL Utah because it will reduce emissions of toxic chemicals.

"We're literally saving the lives of children," Pacenza said. "We're making our children smarter and healthier and we're helping our families thrive. So, to us, this is a welcome step in the right direction."

Seventy jobs at the plant are on the line, but many more would be lost in related industries such as coal mining.

"We're over 200 jobs right here in this county that we're going to lose when that happens," Jones said.

Pacenza argues that there's another side to the coin.

"People manage to forget this," he said, "but when you spend money on pollution controls, those are jobs, too."

The plant has a vast appetite for coal. A truckload arrives every 15 minutes or so, delivering 1,800 tons of coal each day. It's burned at 2600 degrees to produce 172 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply about 86,000 homes.

If the plant shuts down, replacing the lost power is not a worry.

"It's already factored into our planning," Eskelsen said. The company's 10-year plan already includes increased generation from natural gas and renewable sources such as wind and solar.

That doesn't satisfy public officials who want the plant to stay open.

"Here we are, we're attacking energy which gives us the resources to put America to work," Jones said. "And we need jobs in America today."

Pacenza said the health benefits of the regulations outweigh the possible economic impacts.

"When this rule goes into effect," Pacenza said, "it's going to reduce the amount of mercury that goes into the air by 40 percent. And mercury is an incredibly dangerous substance. particularly for unborn children."

Jones blamed President Obama for the regulations.

"In this scenario here over air quality," Jones said, "we have one man that's (responsible for the) regulation. That's going to affect this nation on the cost of their energy, the cost of their electricity. And there's people out there that can't afford what we have today."

Eskelsen said the regulations in question originated long before the Obama administration. "We know that these requirements have been coming for a long time," he said. "Exactly when they're implemented has been the subject of some debate, but we've known about them."

The regulations actually date back to 1991, according to Pacenza. "So that is, the presidency of George Bush, senior."

Although the plant shutdown in 2015 now seems more likely than ever, company officials emphasize they have not made a final decision. That's expected to be made next April.