Pollution? What Pollution?

That haze over the Grand Canyon is unmasking our "good" utility company

Think "Arizona Public Service" and what comes to mind? Bloated electricity rates, incompetent management, gross callousness toward public concerns about nuclear safety? Whether the topic is overpriced skyboxes or plummeting dividends, APS is the company we all love to hate.

Its cross-town counterpart, however, is another matter entirely. The Salt River Project, the Valley's other big power provider, is as friendly as an old-fashioned milkman. For years SRP has been known for its moderate rates, sensible decision-making and earnest commitment to the good of the community.

But the Grand Canyon is changing all that.

Ever since the National Park Service put out a little study last year blaming the canyon's wintertime air pollution on the Navajo Generating Station at Page, SRP has been acting more like the National Coal Association than the Consumers' Union. Which is to say, whining, barking and snarling in a most unneighborly way that the government is going overboard on regulation. SRP, which manages the plant, is calling for yet more study before pollution controls are adopted and claiming it has been unfairly targeted by the park service report.

If you've been paying any attention at all to the national debate over acid rain--"What acid rain? It can't be my fault"--you've heard it all before. And if you've been in Arizona long enough to remember the Phelps Dodge Corporation's ferocious fight to keep operating the Douglas copper smelter, you'll recognize the tactics, as well. (Phelps Dodge spent close to a million dollars on lawyer's fees to fight regulations and called smelter pollution "a fake issue.")

The United Mine Workers union, whose members dig the coal that fuels the Navajo power plant, describes the attitude perfectly in its 1974 publication "The ABCs of Coal" (look under "R is for Robber Baron").

The days of the Douglas copper smelter, like those of the dinosaur, are finally over. With Arizona's copper smelters either cleaned up or closed, the Navajo plant is now the largest industrial source of sulfur-dioxide pollution in the West. It is number one on the environmentalists' hit list.

Despite all the caterwauling, SRP isn't even on the hook for its full share of the cleanup costs. The rest of us, however, aren't so lucky. Taxpayers will be subsidizing SRP's share, thanks to an obscure clause in federal law that protects SRP and other purchasers of Navajo power from cost increases.

Jay Gould, America's original pirate in pinstripes, couldn't have finessed it any better.

SRP USUALLY OPERATES like Ralph Nader says a utility would if it were run by its customers which, in a sense, is true in this case. Since its inception as a half-public, half-private delivery system for water from federal dams upstream on the Salt and Verde Rivers, the Salt River Project has been the little guy's pal.

The Salt River Project was the first utility to figure out nuclear energy wasn't worth the cost and to cut its losses on the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (to the benefit of its ratepayers). SRP, despite its cadre of itchy-fingered dam builders, was the first Phoenix 40 company to peg Orme Dam as a loser and to support alternatives. If not always perfect in its instincts, SRP has, at least, always been perfectly willing to respect changing public values.

But in a scathing analysis of the park service report released earlier this month, SRP consultant Jerry Shapiro accused federal environmental officials of "initiating a bewildering and frightening program directed at forcing very large expenditures onto electric-power consumers all over the West."

At the Navajo Generating Station, Shapiro contended, sulfur-dioxide scrubbers would cost up to $1 billion and would provide no perceptible environmental benefit. Nils Larson, supervisor of SRP's air-quality division, goes even further and attacks the federal regulations on which the cleanup effort is based.

"We have a poor regulatory basis for what we are talking about," Larson says, criticizing rules to protect visibility in places like the Grand Canyon and other national parks. "It's as if you were stopped for speeding where there was no posted speed limit and no speedometer to judge your speed."

Who would have figured on hearing so much static from the utility which prides itself on building and operating the cleanest coal-fired power plant in the region, the Coronado Generating Station, near Springerville? Certainly not the environmentalists, who have been picking off the state's major pollution sources, one by one, for more than a decade.

"I didn't expect them to march in and say `Gosh, we're ready to write the check,' without a question," says environmental consultant Priscilla Robinson of Tucson, a key strategist in the campaign. "But I was surprised by the degree of opposition. It seems somewhat out of character. I mean, they are putting out 200 tons per day of sulfur dioxide on the park boundary; where the hell is it supposed to be going?"

SRP officials argue the recent park service study, the first to use a chemical tracer to separate the power plant emissions from other sources of haze trapped in the Grand Canyon, contradicted the findings of past reports. They also say that the park service report was too limited to produce a complete picture of pollution sources dimming the vistas. "We have photos from a hundred years ago showing just as much haze," Larson says.

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