Utah’s failure to enforce protections from coal-derived air pollution hurts the West.
Last May, I stood on top of 13,824-foot Jagged Peak in Southwest Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness, feeling good.
My friends Ted and Christy Mahon and I had just completed the hundredth and final ascent of our Centennial Peaks Project, a seven-year effort to climb and ski Colorado’s 100 highest peaks. Our friend Pete Gaston also joined us that day, and with clouds sweeping the blue sky above us and the smells of spring on the breeze, we snacked and sipped water on Jagged’s summit.
At three quarters the size of Rhode Island, the Weminuche is the largest of my home state’s 41 Wilderness Areas. It’s stunning and remote, ribbed by serrated ridges and sharp peaks, dotted with alpine lakes, and striped with glittering rivers and streams. I’ve been lucky to make four trips into the Weminuche over the course of the Centennial Peaks Project.
It’s one of at least five Wilderness Areas within three hours of my home in Colorado’s central Rockies. Unfortunately, the Weminuche is also about 200 miles southeast of two ’70s-era coal burning power plants in central Utah, close enough that its air quality is likely degraded by nitrogen-oxide (NOx) emissions from those plants.
According to the Utah Department of Air Quality, the Hunter and Huntington coal-fired power plants together emit 12,989 tons of NOx each year. In combination with other airborne substances, NOx forms dangerous ozone and tiny particulates, which contribute to the visible haze around national parks in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona and, according to the Clean Air Task Force, 11 premature deaths and 233 asthma attacks every year.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take today to protect clean air, public health, and outdoor recreation all across the region affected by the Hunter and Huntington coal plants, which also includes Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park and Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks and Flat Tops Wilderness.
The EPA has laid out two plans for public comment, but only one, the Clean Parks Plan, will make meaningful improvements to Utah’s air quality by requiring the Hunter and Huntington plants to install modern pollution controls to reduce dangerous emissions. The other option is the State of Utah’s plan, which would not require any pollution reductions from these old, dirty coal plants.
If Utah were to require those plants to install industry-standard pollution controls, as Colorado’s Hayden Station and more than 320 other coal plants across the country have either done or announced plans to do, that NOx output would decrease 76 percent to 3,103 tons.
There on Jagged’s summit, we reflected on the achievement of a long-term vision and the chance to connect with nature and test ourselves. We talked about how fortunate we are to have experienced these mountains and other wild places, which have shaped us into the people we are.
We also talked about how grateful we are to the Americans who preceded us, patriots who saw the value of preserving our common resources—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the public lands we own together—as national treasures and venues for inspiration.
It is my duty to continue this legacy of protection, and to leave the planet better off than the way I find it. Thirty years from now, I want my own kids to be able to head out into the Weminuche—or any of our other parks, wilderness areas, and public lands—to experience challenge and growth.
Considering the history of fellowship and mutual respect between Utah and Colorado, and the reverence for the outdoors I share with so many Utahns, I humbly ask the citizens of both states—and outdoors lovers everywhere—to join me in urging the EPA to protect Rocky Mountain communities from toxic coal pollution by adopting the Clean Parks Plan.
We have until March 14 to tell the EPA what we think, and you don’t need to be an expert. Simply explain why clean air is important to you. To submit your comments, visit sc.org/cleanair4utah.
A veteran of more than 30 ski films, commentator for ESPN and ABC Sports, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year 2016 finalist, and world-renowned ski mountaineer and guide, Chris Davenport is one of the world’s premier big-mountain skiers and is a board member of Protect Our Winters (POW) and a member of the POW Riders Alliance.