Officials tour Navajo Generating Station, learn about history, pollution controls, Navajo employment

| December 8 2012
Officials say tour leads to better understanding of power plant’s role

LECHEE, Ariz. – Seven Shonto Chapter officials, staff, two Peabody Energy employees and a representative from Navajo National Monument visited the Navajo Generating Station last week to learn about its history, pollution controls, economic importance and Navajo employment.

Other VIPs have visited NGS recently. During the campaign season, Congresswoman-elect Ann Kirkpatrick met with managers and toured the plant so she’d have first-hand knowledge to answer constituent questions about it, she said.

In October, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie, a member of the Resources & Economic Development Committee, visited to get specific information about water use, power distribution, ownership and Navajo employment.

Of NGS’s 526 employees, 86 percent are Navajo. In the last five years, NGS has trained more than 250 new workers through Navajo preference – 100 percent of the incoming work force.

In November, NGS was visited by Arizona Speaker of the House Andy Tobin, Senator-elect Kelli Ward, Representatives-elect Doug Coleman, Paul Boyer, Robert Thorpe, Rosanna Gabaldon, Andrea Dalessandro, Jonathan Larkin, Brenda Barton, legislative staff Tammy Stowe and Kelly Townsend.

Also in November, Coconino County District 5 Supervisor Lena Fowler, County Emergency Management Director Robert Rowley, County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Program Manager Toby Olvera, and County Public Information Officer Nathan Gonzales spent three hours at NGS as part of a northern Arizona fact-finding visit to Page, Marble Canyon, Jacob Lake and Fredonia.

Shonto officials wanted to know about the Black Mesa/Lake Powell Railroad that delivers coal from the Peabody Coal silos on Highway 160 to NGS.

A portion of the 78-mile long track goes through their community, and they said residents have questions about sound, vibration and road crossings.

NGS Railroad Manager David Tso explained the railroad makes three trips a day, usually seven days a week. NGS is responsible for the right-of-way fence along both sides of the track and workers maintain it regularly.

Trains are required by law to sound their horns at every crossing for safety to warn drivers who may be about to cross the tracks, he added.

NGS Environmental and Safety Manager Paul Ostapuk told the Shonto visitors that the power plant was built on the Navajo Nation to save new hydroelectric dams from being constructed on the Colorado River and flooding part of the Grand Canyon.

“It was part of an environmental compromise,” he said. “There was water in Lake Powell, there was coal on the Navajo Nation, the town of Page existed with services and a paved highway, and there was strong interest in creating some kind of economic opportunity for the Navajo Nation. So that’s the roots right there of NGS.”

After meeting NGS managers and an hour-long introductory presentation, Shonto officials put on hardhats and safety glasses to take a tour past the huge pulverizers that crush coal to the consistency of baby powder. The powder is then blown into immense boilers that heat tubes containing water to produce superheated steam.

Once at 1,005 degrees, the steam is used to turn the blades of giant turbines at 3,600 RPM. The turbines then power  generators that make electricity.

The group next walked along the massive turbine deck past NGS’s three huge turbines. Ostapuk explained that the plant’s turbines and generators are capable of making enough reliable “baseload” electricity for 3 million people.

“What that means is we’re running 24/7,” he said. “Our mission is to be online 24 hours a day, all seasons of the year.”

Shonto Chapter President Felix Fuller, an NGS chemist, showed the visitors the water laboratories where he works. Water used in the production of electricity at NGS must be absolutely purified down to the parts per billion level and free of any mineral content, he said. That prevents deposit buildups to keep equipment operating in good condition.

NGS has four laboratories where water, coal and pollution control chemistry is monitored. Four of NGS’s six chemists are Navajos.

Shonto Vice President Elizabeth Whitethorne-Benally, who was recently elected to succeed Fuller as president, said her impression of NGS is better than she expected.

“Actually, I’m impressed. I would have to say that,” she said. “It was a very good tour. The one that really made an impression on me is the recycling of water. Whatever is the byproduct of the plant is re-used.”

NGS uses water from Lake Powell in the production of electricity. Water is not wasted. It is recovered along with any storm water runoff and then recycled back in to the process using brine concentrators and a salt crystallizer.

Because Shonto is considering building a commercial project, she wanted to learn how NGS treats sewage water to see if the process would be applicable to business development.

Whitethorne-Benally said people tend to view NGS as “a mysterious place on the other side of the fence” but that visiting and talking to employees in their own language helps to simplify it. She said she would recommend that other chapter and tribal decision-makers tour NGS.

“Oh, of course, because they’d get enlightened and a better idea what goes on here at the plant,” she said.

Wynn Bronston, a Shonto chapter resident, said Fuller urged chapter officials and residents to visit NGS to gain a better understanding. She’s always wanted to visit the plant, she said, because of the stories she heard as a child from her grandfather and great-grandfather who helped to construct it in the 1970s.

“It’s extraordinary. Unbelievable. Phenomenal,” she said. “I was so excited to come and I’m glad I’m here. The history of this place. My grandpa used to work here, and my great-grandpa. They helped build this and they always talked about it.”

From the turbine deck, the group visited Control Rooms 1 and 2 where they met Operation Specialists Brandon Lane, who has worked at NGS for eight years, and Eddie Kent, who has been there for 23.

Before them on a wide console were multiple computer screens to monitor thousands of readings throughout all parts of the 2,250-megawatt plant. From here, operators watch water, steam, coal, pollution controls, turbines, megawatts being produced and dozens of other functions throughout a 12-hour work shift.

“These guys have spent a lot of time training to get where they are,” said Terry Edwards, an Operations Supervisor who trains new control room operators. “They come in as operator trainees. They spend a 12-week period in school and go out on shift. There’s a series of schools they have to attend and pass in order to progress and move up.”

Trainees will spend 11 months or longer practicing on a simulator to learn to handle any event that can occur at the power plant so that their response to a problem is instantaneous.

To become a trainee requires many other courses taught at the plant and experience over several years to qualify.

From the control room, some officials visited the sewage treatment facility while others saw how the wet limestone scrubbers eliminate 95 percent of the plant’s sulfur dioxide from its emissions.

Terry Edwards explained that limestone rock is crushed to a powder with steel balls inside rotating drums the size of buses. The limestone is then mixed with water to create a slurry paste that is sprayed through the flue gas. A chemical reaction changes the gaseous sulfur dioxide into harmless calcium sulfate.

Next, the officials went inside one of the plant’s 775-foot-high stacks where the emission monitoring system is housed.

“From an environmental perspective, this is a very important part of the plant,” Ostapuk said. “This is where we measure all the air quality in the stack. We have real-time monitors. They’re measuring every minute of the emissions. We call them Continuous Emission Monitors, or CEMs.”

Inside the clean, quiet, white room, he explained that each stack has probes to gather accurate measurements. The probes remove moisture then pass it through a bank of specialized analyzers and a master computer that sends readings back to the control room.

The CEMs determine the precise amounts of nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, the stack flow rate and the opacity of the emissions plume – all for EPA reporting purposes.

NGS consistently stays below EPA-mandated pollution limits because of the installed pollution control technology and the diligence of its operators, he said.

Visitors are often surprised by the cleanliness of the plant and the lack of a smell or the scent of anything burning. The air throughout the plant is odorless and safe.

Although people imagine the entire chimney filled with smoke, in reality the three stacks are lined with massive sleeves and emissions pass through only a section of them, Ostapuk said. A workman can ride the stacks’ interior elevator or climb a ladder without harm while the stacks are operating, he said.

What you see coming out, he explained, is primarily water vapor, not smoke. So on hot summer days, it appears to be less. On cold winter days, it appears to be more.

When construction of NGS began in 1969, the plant was built with electrostatic precipitators that remove 99.5 percent of the particulate fly ash after coal is burned. Within each of the power plant’s three units are 16 chambers with 96 fields that use electrodes to charge the particles with electricity to collect the ash on oppositely charged plates.

The captured fly ash can then be recycled and sold as a valuable byproduct. It is used to help make concrete flow smoother, set up stronger and reduce energy use by the cement industry.

One company that uses fly ash is Navajo FlexCrete Building Systems, Inc., in LeChee that manufactures light-weight construction blocks as a building material.

In the 1990s, as part of the Navajo Visibility Agreement with the Grand Canyon Trust and the federal government, NGS invested $420 million to install scrubbers that remove 95 percent of the sulfur dioxide from its emissions.

“This was the primary pollutant we were trying to keep out of the Grand Canyon,” Ostapuk said.

In 2011, NGS voluntarily completed the $45 million installation of low-NOx burners that reduce 40 percent of the nitrogen oxide from emissions. This also helps to improve visibility by reducing regional haze.

Alden Miller, a ranger at Navajo National Monument who came on the tour, said he was impressed with how much NGS employees care about the power plant.

“It’s obvious to me that you take a lot of pride in what you do,” he said. “It seems like you all have such enthusiasm for sharing it, too.”

Terry Edwards agreed.

“These guys are great to work with,” he said. “Everybody who works here, temporary or fulltime employee, they take pride in their workmanship. They want to do it right.”

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CONTACT: Regina Lane, NGS, Regina.Lane@srpnet.com

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