Northeastern Nevada Coal Plants Debated - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter

Northeastern Nevada Coal Plants Debated

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The mountains and valleys of east central Nevada have always been home to the Shoshone people. The mountains and valleys of east central Nevada have always been home to the Shoshone people.
Proponents say the plant will use state-of-the-art pollution control technology and will be the cleanest coal plant in the west. Proponents say the plant will use state-of-the-art pollution control technology and will be the cleanest coal plant in the west.
In Nevada, as the percentage of coal power has dropped, the cost of electricity has soared. In Nevada, as the percentage of coal power has dropped, the cost of electricity has soared.

Nevada is ground zero in the international debate over global warming. Three multi-billion dollar coal-fired power plants are on line to be built in rural areas in the eastern part of the state, even though much of the country is moving away from coal plants because of concerns over climate change.

It's a story where we can't easily assign black hats to one side and white hats to the other.

Around the country, 26 proposed coal plants have been cancelled. In Nevada, as the percentage of coal power has dropped, the cost of electricity has soared.

The power company is looking for ways to balance the demand for more power with environmental concerns -- and rural leaders are happy to help, but if these new coal plants are built, we'll all pay one way or another.

The mountains and valleys of east central Nevada have always been home to the Shoshone people. In the entire country, there is no air that's cleaner...for now.

Native Americans Rick and Delaine Spilsbury live about 5 miles from the Steptoe Valley location set aside as the future home of the Ely Energy Center, a $3.8 billion coal-fired power plant.

"The power plant would be just on the other side of this hill. There's no way they can keep it from spilling over here," said Rick Spilsbury.

Proponents say the plant will use state-of-the-art pollution control technology and will be the cleanest coal plant in the west. Looking out the picture window of their cabin, as they watch quail and elk scamper past, the Spilsbury's know that the term cleanest is relative, and that even a clean coal plant will change their way of life forever.

"It's one of the last open ranges in the U.S.," adds Spilsbury.

Clean air is a primary reason White Pine County is an attractive spot to build power plants, both the Ely Center in Steptoe Valley and the proposed LS Power Plant planned for miles further north.

You couldn't set the plants next to Las Vegas because there are already so many other sources of air pollution. Plants in rural areas can emit more pollutants without going over the legal limit.

Rural Nevada doesn't need the power. The people here will get the plants and whatever comes with them, but the power is needed in Las Vegas with its rapacious appetite for electricity.

"To be sure your lights come on every time you throw that switch, that air conditioner is going to work all summer, that it's going to be at a reasonable cost," said Nevada Power President Pat Shalmy.

The beleaguered business community of White Pine is solidly behind the plants. They have a bit experience with air pollution. The town of McGill, for instance, was home to the Kennecott Copper Smelter, which belched clouds of foul smoke every day for 80 years until pollution laws shut it down.

The locals say they can handle a coal plant.

"We lived through that. I saw no negative impacts to health when Kennecott was operating. I believe the coal plants are the best way to bridge the electricity needs of our state from coal to renewable. We support renewable but we need to be able to turn the lights on when we go home at night," said White Pine County Commissioner Brent Eldridge.

As big as the Ely Project is, it will create only ten full-time jobs -- once construction ends. But it has the support of political leaders because it would stabilize the local tax base for the first time in decades.

At a recent public meeting, most of those leaders touted their support, but among locals, opinion is split almost down the middle.

Many choose to live here -- not Las Vegas, precisely because of the air and water, the hunting and fishing and the quiet. Even though the plants would be clean, the Ely Center would still emit and estimated ten million tons per year of air pollutants.

Native Americans believe the bulk of it would flow directly at their lands. And they have a different view of the good old Kennecott days.

"All these people in town my age or younger carrying oxygen tanks. I se so many in the obituaries. I blame it on the air they breathed. It can't be good for you. People my age look like my mother," said Delaine Spilsbury.

State environmental officials say they've reviewed the plans and computer models and that the Ely Plant will meet all state and federal pollution laws and will not cause a major deterioration in air quality.

"These plants are pretty clean. If you consider the Kennicott smelter operated in Ely for years, it belched out more pollution in one day than these plants will in a year," said Dante Pistone with NDEP.

Under state and federal law, millions of tons of emissions could be released but still not be a violation since it would not caused a major deterioration in air quality.

Email your comments to Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp

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