A critical step in the process of obtaining approval for Arizona Electric Power Cooperatives’ (AEPCO) alternative regional haze plan was taken as community leaders and local residents testified in favor of the plan at a public hearing in Benson March 26.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) held the public hearing at Benson City Hall following a four-week public comment period during which people could mail or e-mail their comments.

Comments at the public hearing were unanimously in support of the AEPCO plan and most of those testifying said the original plan that would have been required under a November 2012 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandate would have “serious and negative impacts” on rural electric co-op members and the area’s economy.

“Our members simply cannot bear the cost of the EPA regulations as they were originally proposed,” said Alan Baker, director of the Willcox Chamber of Commerce.

Baker said the chamber represented almost 200 businesses and industry, mainly in the agricultural area, and not only would those businesses suffer but others as well.

Dr. David Woodall, superintendent of the Benson Unified School District, said electricity was the second-highest expense the district has after personnel “and we support the alternative plan.”

“I’m a runner and a hiker and I love the outdoors and I value a clean environment very much, so I wouldn’t testify in support of something I thought was going to put that in danger. I support this plan,” Woodall said.

Woodall pointed out that more than 60 percent of students in the district come from families that qualify for the free- or reduced-fee lunch program, which means their families live at or below the federal poverty level.

The costs associated with overregulation would severely impact those families, Woodall said.

In its ‘final ruling’ of in December 2012 AEPCO was told to lower emissions at the Apache Generating Station east of Benson that are blamed for contributing to regional haze in national parks and other federal ‘Class 1’ areas. The EPA also said the state of Arizona’s part of the process, the ‘State Implementation Plan’ or SIP, didn’t adequately address the issue. The controls that would have been required under the EPA’s plan would have cost more than $200 million, a capitol expense that would have raised rates by 17 percent or more and could have eventually forced the plant to close.

AEPCO proposed a revised plan (SIP) to convert one of its coal units to natural gas and perform other emissions control upgrades that achieves better visibility improvements at a much lower cost – $32 million instead of more than $200 million.

It is this revised plan that was the focus of testimony at the ADEQ public hearing.

            ADEQ will respond to the written and oral comments in writing and approve or deny the permit application. If it approves, the revised plan will be sent to the EPA.

A final decision is expected in the fall.