Officials to discuss air quality

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— Air quality in the Yampa Valley and Mount Zirkel Wilderness has improved in recent years, and advocates for air quality are hoping tonight to enlighten the public about how best to build on those improvements.

Local, state and federal authorities on combating air pollution will be on hand to discuss the past, present and future of air pollution in the Yampa Valley and Mount Zirkel Wilderness at 7 p.m. today in the County Commissioners' Hearing Room in the county courthouse annex.

Representatives from Routt County, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Public Health and Environment will offer their insight.

"We're getting people from every level of environmental regulatory control," said John Eastman, a Sierra Club member. Eastman, who also works in the county planning department, will address ongoing concerns about air quality and the wilderness with Sierra Club attorney Reed Zars.

Eastman said he hopes the discussion about the Sierra Club lawsuits against the coal power plants in Hayden and Craig will prompt discussion of ways to avoid such lawsuits in the future.

"One of the main issues is, 'How do we avoid getting into this again?'" he said. "Do we really have to come to the point again that we sue each other to solve air pollution?"

In 1993, the Sierra Club first alerted the Hayden and Craig coal power plants to thousands of alleged violations of air-pollution limits and issued a notice to sue for those violations.

A federal court in 1995 required Hayden supply $130 million in pollution upgrades after it was found to fall short of Clean Air Act requirements.

The Craig coal power plant went to trial in October 2000 and was required to pay $1.5 million for renewable energy projects and was charged a $500,000 civil penalty.

The Craig power plant has begun to install pollution-control measures, Eastman added.

Eastman said he and other advocates of clean air hope to encourage further advancements in air quality.

"We definitely don't want to be confrontational in any way," he said. "We want to celebrate victory but also raise awareness."

A topic of discussion will be the benefit of improving the local economy by promoting the environment.

"The court battle was a huge win for the economy," Eastman said. "We didn't try to put them out of business but instead helped them to act more responsibly."

Eastman and other county officials credit the owners of both power plants with helping to bring cleaner air to the Yampa Valley and Mount Zirkel Wilderness.

In 1993 the U.S. Forest Service confirmed visibility in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness was being impaired and that emissions from the two plants was a likely cause, Eastman said.

Advancements in technology have contributed to the ability of the plants in Hayden and Craig to emit cleaner air, County Commissioner Dan Ellison said.

"A lot of things done better now were impossible at the time due to a lack of technology," he said.

Ellison explained the Hayden and Craig power plants were built between the early 1960s and late 1970s. The push for clean air finally moved to the forefront in the early 1990s and continues to remain there now, he said.

"As technology advanced, it became something that was put on the front burner," Ellison said. "It was possible to make those changes."

The plants at Hayden and Craig, however, are ahead of many other coal-burning plants in the country, he said.

"The coal burned at both power plants is cleaner coal than what is used in other parts of the country," he said.

Mike Zopf of the Routt County Department of Environmental Health will provide an update of local air-quality improvement efforts.

He said he will specifically highlight the state of air quality in and around the Steamboat Springs area and the challenge of maintaining high air-quality standards.

"We are obligated to promote and protect air quality for the betterment of human health," Zopf said.

Despite the growth in population, air quality in Steamboat Springs has improved since 1996, he said.

"We have found that the air quality is certainly better than it was 10 years ago," Zopf said. "And as we grow, as we certainly will, we hope to keep our air clean."

The public is encouraged to attend and provide its input, Zopf said.

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