Nebraska's three largest electric utilities have spent more than $70 million to reduce haze and improve visibility in national parks and wilderness areas beyond the state's borders.
At federal hearings in Wyoming on Wednesday and later this month, the issue for Lincoln Electric System will be whether its $10 million contribution is sufficient or whether it must ante up $60 million more.
LES officials will argue the steps already taken should suffice, but federal regulators have staked out a requirement for more.
The dispute is just the latest in an air quality initiative begun 14 years ago.
To comply, Nebraska Public Power District has spent $47 million at its Gerald Gentleman Station coal plant near Sutherland to reduce haze at Wind Cave National Park near Custer, S.D.
In 2010, Omaha Public Power District spent $14 million at its Nebraska City plant, which affects visibility at the Hercules Glades Wilderness near Branson, Mo.
LES, part owner of Laramie River Station in Wyoming, spent $10 million to improve air quality at Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain national parks.
The money was used to install air pollution control equipment called "low-nox" burners to reduce nitrogen oxide, a major contributor to regional haze. Sulfur dioxide and fine dust also contribute to haze, which occurs when particles scatter sunlight. Near mountains and forests, haze reduces the clarity of scenic vistas.
Most haze results from pollution from cars, industry and utilities, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and winds can carry it hundreds of miles.
In national parks on the East Coast, increasing haze has reduced the average visual range from 90 miles to 15 to 25 miles, according to the EPA.
And in the west, visibility in federally protected areas has dropped from 140 miles to 35 to 90 miles.
In 1999, the EPA launched a regional haze program under the Clean Air Act to improve visibility in 156 national parks and wilderness areas, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains.
It asked states to work with the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and others to develop and implement state plans to reduce haze.
Travel groups and environmentalists praised the move, but critics accused the Obama administration of establishing a new regulatory front to impose enormous cost on coal plants for, what they say, are imperceptible aesthetic benefits.
"Its real goal is to impose another costly regulation on electric utilities and force them to shut down their coal-fired generating units. Ultimately, all states could be subject to EPA's Regional Haze power grab," wrote William Yeatman, who compiled a report for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Nebraska does not have any of the so-called Class I federal parks or wilderness areas, so it did not need to develop a state plan to reduce regional haze, said Shelley Schneider, air quality division administrator for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
However, Nebraska did join eight other states to evaluate air pollution sources that could contribute to visibility problems in adjacent Class I areas, she said.
After consulting with the NPPD, OPPD and other stakeholders, the DEQ submitted a report to the federal agency in June 2011.
A part of the plan dealing with the installation of "low-nox" burners was approved, she said, but the EPA later denied the DEQ analysis and its recommendation of using the "best available retrofit technology" to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions at Gerald Gentleman.
EPA officials favor the use of "scrubbers" to remove sulfur dioxide, one of the more expensive options.
"We were concerned about the amount of water that would be consumed by scrubber technology," Schneider said.
The EPA since has stepped in with its own plan to control sulfur dioxide emissions based on the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, known as casper. The rule requires 28 states to reduce power plant emissions that contribute to the “downwind” transport of ozone and fine particulate matter pollution in eastern states.
Joe Citta, corporate environmental manager for NPPD, said utilities are in limbo because of uncertainty about what will happen with casper, now facing a legal challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Citta noted that casper applies only to eastern states, which include Nebraska.
Nevertheless, LES officials are concerned with an EPA federal implementation plan that would require the installation of "selective catalytic reduction technology" at Laramie River Station at a cost of $600 million. LES, which owns about 13 percent of the plant, would pay about $60 million.
Basin Electric, part owner and operator of Laramie River Station, already has spent $70 million to $94 million to install low-nox burners.
Public hearings on the EPA federal implementation plan for Laramie River Station and three other coal plants in Wyoming are set for Wednesday in Cheyenne and July 26 in Casper, Wyo.
LES officials plan to raise objections to the federal plan.