The Environmental Protection Agency Friday issued a proposed rule meant to reduce haze in the Grand Canyon by cutting emissions at the Navajo Generating Station.

Federal law requires the EPA to reduce haze at national parks across the U.S.

The coal-burning plant at Page, 20 miles from the Grand Canyon's North Rim, emits nitrogen oxide in unacceptable levels, despite equipment installations meant to bring about reductions, the EPA says. In the last decade, the plant's owners have installed special burners on the plant’s three smoke stacks.

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“You can imagine there are different levels of control that you can put on, and each level reduces the amount of pollution that comes out of the smokestack," said EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld. "We found that we needed a more stringent level of control, and that is what we are proposing.”

The new rule requires the plant to reduce emissions by an average of 73 percent. The power plant's owners, including the Salt River Project, say that could cost as much as $1 billion.

Salt River Project spokesman Scott Harrelson said that before the company commits to making the upgrades it wants to negotiate a new plant site lease with the Navajo Nation. The current lease expires in six years and the utility is seeking a 25-year extension.

“That process will trigger a federal environmental review, which will take at least five years to complete and could be filed by lengthy litigation, so the owners would be very hesitant to make an investment of around $1 billion in a facility we are not sure will operate beyond 2019,” Harrelson said.

The proposed rule takes that into account and allows the plant to make the changes as late as 2026.

Environmentalists, including the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, say that date is too far away and could result in the reductions never happening.

The plant supplies electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes in Arizona, California and Nevada. It also is a major power supplier for the Central Arizona Project, which brings Colorado River Water to Central and Southern Arizona.

U.S. Sen Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said this week he worries that the new controls could drive up water rates, which could cause other problems.

“If water rates are unaffordable through the CAP, you will have farmers going back to groundwater, and that may have consequences for our underground storage,“ Flake said.

The Navajo Generating Station is on Navajo Nation land and is a major economic driver for the tribe.

Navajo spokesman Ernie Zah said keeping the plant and its related coal mine operating is crucial, because the two entities employ more than 1,000 Navajos on the reservation, where unemployment is near 60 percent.

“Usually these types of jobs have larger economic impacts on the entire family," Zah said. "You know it is not uncommon for Navajo people, our people, to reside with their in-laws. It is not uncommon to have the wage earners provide for the whole family, 10 to 15 lives.”

U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., whose district includes the power plant, said she thinks the proposed rule is a good start.

“Of course we want to lower pollution levels," Kirkpatrick said. "We also want long-term job creation in the region so it gives us an opportunity and some time to have those conversations and figure out what direction we should go in terms of economic development. “

The proposed rule is subject to public comment for the next 90 days. Comments may be submitted on the EPA website.