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Xcel Agrees To Nearly $1 Million EPA Fine Over Coal Ash Storage At Problem-Plagued Comanche Power Plant

(CBS4) -- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Monday a settlement reached with Public Service Company of Colorado (PSCo) that will result in a $925,000 fine and requirements for increased monitoring and data gathering at the Comanche power plant near Pueblo.

The penalties are the result of EPA allegations regarding the storage of coal ash, a waste product which primarily results from the burning of coal in coal-fired power generation facilities. Coal ash contains harmful levels of mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, and mismanagement of its storage risks polluting waterways and air, according to the EPA.

The agreement commits PSCo to improved monitoring of the groundwater under the plant, the EPA claimed. The company also must collect and analyze data on the groundwater, make the information public, and cease using coal ash ponds beyond their closure dates.

The EPA established national rules for coal ash management and disposal in April 2015, largely in response to a 2008 incident at the Kingston power plant in Roane County, Tenn. A dike broke, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash, much of it eventually reaching the Emory River.

The EPA announced a concentrated enforcement effort to protect groundwater supplies from coal ash in January.

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"Today's settlement will protect the Pueblo community and surrounding environment by ensuring the safe disposal and management of coal ash at the Comanche power plant," Suzanne Bohan, EPA Region 8's Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division Director, stated in a press release. "We will continue to work with our state partners to hold owners and operators of CCR facilities accountable, restore the environment where damage has occurred, and protect communities, like Pueblo, that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution."

PSCo, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, has 30 days to pay the fine.

A Denver-based Xcel spokesperson, Michelle Aguayo, provided a statement:

"Protecting the environment is a priority for Xcel Energy, and we have a strong record of environmental leadership. Reaching this agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency is in the best interest of our customers and the community of Pueblo as we continue providing safe, reliable, affordable and increasingly clean power. While we believe our operations at the Comanche site followed the federal Coal Combustion Residuals Rule based on our understanding of local groundwater conditions, the agreement ensures our ongoing operations meet EPA's expectations associated with the rule's monitoring and reporting process. Based on our current groundwater monitoring results, we have no indication of impacts that would affect local residents or drinking and surface water from the coal ash operations at Comanche. We remain fully committed to following the rule and are taking steps to do so in cooperation with EPA."

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The Comanche plant has suffered numerous breakdowns since coming online in 2010.

Xcel is currently being sued for breach of contract by CORE Electric Cooperative (formerly Intermountain Rural Electric Association). The co-op is attempting to recover damages caused by the interrupted electric supply promised to come from the Comanche plant. The co-op claims improper personnel training and equipment maintenance has led to the breakdowns.

The latest breakdown at Comanche occurred in late January.

"The entire Comanche generating station went dark as a result," the most recent CORE complaint states. "Repairs are underway but not yet completed, causing Comanche 3 to be offline for
months. Repair costs are estimated to be $6.4 million. While Comanche 3 is offline, CORE is deprived of its entitlement to Comanche 3's Energy that is worth millions of dollars."

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Xcel originally planned to retire the last of Comanche's three power generating units in 2040 as the company made its own move toward "greener" energy supplies.

However, under pressure from the state's 2030 carbon emissions reduction goals, the company agreed to move up of the retirement dates of all three Comanche units. The last unit, Comanche 3, is now scheduled to shut down by Jan. 1, 2034.

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