Officials praise Mt. Zirkel cleanup efforts

— Every spring, the 15-foot snowbanks that have accumulated along the Park Range northeast of Steamboat Springs yield an unwanted harvest of acidic pollution as they melt. But scientists studying the problem say they expect that situation to change for the better and soon.

Federal, state and local officials who have devoted much of the past decade to cleaning up acid precipitation in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area toasted the success of those efforts before a group of 60 people here Wednesday night.

"We've crossed the goal line," Larry Svoboda of the Environmental Protection Agency proclaimed.

Svoboda was referring to the retrofitting of coal-fired power plants at Hayden and Craig with pollution controls that are intended to reduce "acid snow" in the 140,000-acre acre wilderness northeast of Steamboat Springs.

More than $100 million was spent to install smokestack scrubbers and bag houses at the Hayden Station power plant. The work was completed six months ahead of schedule in 1999. And the Craig Power Plant has been given until 2004 to finish installation of similar devices there.

Svoboda said the installation of the pollution-control devices, a direct result of lawsuit filed in federal court against the owners of the two power plants by the Sierra Club, will pull almost 100,000 tons of acid producing pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide out of the local airshed.

"That is definitely going to benefit the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area and it is going to benefit all of you who are blessed enough to live here," Svoboda said.

Dennis Haddow of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reminded his audience that in the early '90s scientists determined the acid deposition in the delicate lakes of the Zirkel wilderness was the highest of any place in the western United States.

The scientists observed that the wilderness is immediately downwind from the two power plants. They confirmed their suspicions about the source of the pollution by finding the power plants' signature in the telltale sulfur isotope ratio in water samples, an indication that the source of the pollution was localized.

Haddow, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service until two months ago, said scientists formally certified to the governor in July 1993 that they had documented adverse impacts of air pollution in the Zirkel Wilderness.

"What a great place we're at right now," Haddow said. "This is a great success story. We believe it will not take more than about a year for there to be changes in lake chemistry (in the wilderness). It will happen very quickly."

Dan Ely of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the legal leverage brought to bear by the Sierra Club lawsuits had more to do with a decline in visibility in the Yampa Valley than it had to do with acid precipitation. He said the days when layers of haze were evident from the top of the Steamboat Ski Area looking north toward Zirkel were over.

"We don't think there will be any measurable visibility impacts up in Zirkel," Ely said.

Reed Zars, the lead Sierra Club attorney who pressed the lawsuits, said the victory in the lawsuits was a triumph for the American legal system and the Clean Air Act, which is unlike many federal laws in that it allows citizens to enforce its provisions.

Svoboda praised Zars for his perseverance against a federal courtroom half-full of the best attorneys the power plant operators could afford.

Frank Roitsch of Xcel Energy represented the owners of the Hayden Station.

Roitsch said the actions of the judge in the lawsuit led his company to sit down with sierra Club representatives and negotiate a settlement both sides could live with.

Svoboda said there will be an ongoing need to monitor sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the air over the Zirkel wilderness. But he predicted the annual snowmelt, which previously flushed high levels of pollutants into fragile lakes during a period of four weeks each spring, will begin to run cleaner.

"The clean air requirements probably should have been fulfilled five years ago," Svoboda said. "I think we're going to see a reduction in those episodic effects right away."

Community comments

Note: The Steamboat Pilot & Today doesn’t necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy.

Post a comment (Requires free registration)

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.