I-Team: The Coal Battle Heats Up - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter

I-Team: The Coal Battle Heats Up

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Acting Superintendent Paul Deprey knows a good thing when he sees it, and seeing at the Great Basin National Park is exactly the point. Acting Superintendent Paul Deprey knows a good thing when he sees it, and seeing at the Great Basin National Park is exactly the point.
At night, visitors soak up views of the milky way that, because of light pollution, are no longer available most places. At night, visitors soak up views of the milky way that, because of light pollution, are no longer available most places.
When Pistone and staff met with the public weeks ago, they admitted that the computer models they analyzed regarding pollution effects were supplied by the power companies. When Pistone and staff met with the public weeks ago, they admitted that the computer models they analyzed regarding pollution effects were supplied by the power companies.
The company wants the new coal plants as a bridge to renewable sources down the road so that the neon lights and air conditioners stay on in Las Vegas. The company wants the new coal plants as a bridge to renewable sources down the road so that the neon lights and air conditioners stay on in Las Vegas.
At every opportunity, Marasco appears at public meetings to rail against the plants. At every opportunity, Marasco appears at public meetings to rail against the plants.

Three massive coal-fired power plants are planned for eastern Nevada, in part to provide electricity to power-hungry Las Vegas. But even a so-called "Clean Coal" plant will emit millions of tons of pollutants into the air each year.

The tradeoff between energy and the environment is an ongoing battle, and now rural Nevada is right in the middle.

It's a physical law -- if you burn millions of tons of coal, you're going to produce other effects. The question is, will the beneficial effects of having that energy outweigh the harmful effects to the environment?

It depends on who you ask. One of the newest and most sensitive battlegrounds is among the crown jewels of our state -- the Great Basin National Park.

Acting Superintendent Paul Deprey knows a good thing when he sees it, and seeing at the Great Basin National Park is exactly the point. One of the reasons the park was created is because it offers some of the clearest, long range vistas in the country.

At night, visitors soak up views of the milky way that, because of light pollution, are no longer available most places. The day and night views are dependent on clean air. This park has some of the cleanest air in the nation, for the time being.

"What they are going to be seeing, if these power plants are developed, will be diminished," said Deprey.

How do you quantify the importance of a view? How much weight should it carry versus the energy needs of a vibrant Las Vegas economy?

The National Park Service has uncharacteristically jumped into the debate with both feet, alarmed by proposals to build two coal-fired power plants in White Pine County.

Across the country, air pollution has decimated national parks according to a new study. A more specific analysis of just one of the proposed Nevada coal plants, alleges emissions would devastate this park.

"It also impacts plants and animals and water resources. When you have that kind of thing occurring, it's very hard to reverse the process," adds Deprey.

Using the same data and models as the energy industry and state regulators, the park service reached much different conclusions about the impact of the plants. Federal scientists say they frankly don't know how the other guys came to their benign conclusions.

State air pollution official Dante Pistone says there's no way his agency would cook the books regarding the proposed Ely Energy Center slated for the Steptoe Valley north of Ely.

"We don't have a dog in this fight. We frankly don't care one way or another if that plant gets built," he said.

When Pistone and staff met with the public weeks ago, they admitted that the computer models they analyzed regarding pollution effects were supplied by the power companies -- but no matter how you cut it, the amount of pollution emitted by the proposed plants will fall far below what's allowed by law, even for a national park.

"There is a little more degradation allowed there but not to the point where it would violate the standards. And that's really what we have to look at, is what the current law, what the current standards are," said Pistone.

Terry Marasco operates a small motel at the entrance to the Great Basin Park. Like many of the opponents to the coal plants, he's been characterized as an eco-radical -- even a pinko.

At every opportunity, Marasco appears at public meetings to rail against the plants. Proponents note that the Ely Center will be among the cleanest coal plants in the world, and when new technology comes online, it will be made even cleaner -- so clean that once it is up and running, it will mean that two older and dirtier plants can be taken out of service.

One of those plants is Nevada Power's Reid Gardner plant north of Las Vegas. When it opened in the 60's, it too was state of the art. Today, it's regarded as the dirtiest power plant in the country.

It puts a lot more than just steam into the air on most days. If the Ely Center is approved, Nevada Power says it will take Reid Gardner and a second, older plant out of service. Marasco isn't impressed.

"I and White Pine County should suck this poisonous stuff in because two other plants have gone out of business? I don't buy that. That's taking a poor, financially depressed county and trying to sell them a bill of goods. So I should be killed or my child get asthma because two other plants someplace else are out of business?" said Marasco.

Nevada Power finds itself between a rock and a hard place. When it decreased its reliance on coal a few years ago, electricity bills soared and consumers roared.

The company wants the new coal plants as a bridge to renewable sources down the road so that the neon lights and air conditioners stay on in Las Vegas, but the same customers who want the electricity, don't want the pollution.

It boils down to a value judgment -- how much pollution are we willing to accept for how much electricity?

A third plant is also in the works for the Mesquite area and a big hearing is set for tomorrow night.

The hearing will be at the Mesquite City Hall at 6:00 p.m. on Feb. 7th

Email your comments to Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp

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