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Proposed Coal-Burning Power Plants Threaten the Health of Texans

Feb. 7, 2006

Proposed Coal-Burning Power Plants Threaten the Health of Texans

Governor Perry Challenged: Protect People From Pollution Instead of Fast-Tracking Polluting Coal-Burning Power Plants

(Austin) Health advocates, environmentalists, fishermen and concerned neighbors called on Governor Perry today to issue an executive order protecting them from pollution instead of expediting more permits for coal-burning power plants in Texas. Seven coal plants have been proposed for the state, and applications have been filed for a permit with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). One coal plant has already worked its way through the permitting process.

“Emissions from these dirty coal-burning power plants would risk the health of those living nearby and those who live downwind, and if permitted would impact those who love to use Texas waterways for hunting and fishing,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen’s Texas Office.

Concerns have grown due to the fact that the additional coal plants proposed for Texas would threaten public health by emitting more than a hundred thousand tons of new pollution into the air annually, adding to toxic mercury emissions and global warming gases, while not even reducing the cost of electricity.

“Elsewhere in the country, governors have ordered power companies to cut the emissions from their power plants to protect people from pollution,” Smith said. “But in Texas, Governor Perry recently issued an executive order expediting the permitting of these plants, potentially allowing them to avoid pollution reduction rules that are pending at the TCEQ.  These plants could be permitted before rules to require more pollution reductions are in place.”

The proposed coal-burning power plants would all be located east of I-35; one in Riesel, near Waco; one for Rockdale at Alcoa’s location; two plants (3 units, including 2 for TXU’s Oak Grove) in Robertson County near Franklin; and two in Port Comfort, south of Victoria.

“We call on Governor Perry to protect the people of Texas from pollution, and not to put our health at risk by promoting pollution,” said Karen Hadden, Executive Director of the SEED Coalition.

In Texas there are 1,160 premature deaths, 1,791 heart attacks, 34,000 asthma attacks and 144 lung cancer deaths every year from particle pollution from existing coal-burning power plants.

“If the proposed plants are built, Texans will suffer more premature deaths, lung disease, asthma and heart attacks, and children will be at increased risk of permanent brain damage due to more toxic mercury emissions,” stated Dr. Greg Sheff of Austin Physicians for Social Responsibility. 

EPA Toxic Release Inventory data ranks TXU’s Monticello plant in East Texas as the worst in the nation now, and with at least 1,456 pounds of mercury per year, Oak Grove would top the list.

“TXU’s huge (1720 MW) Oak Grove plant would be the worst in the nation for toxic mercury pollution, even as a new plant,” said Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for the Lone Star Sierra Club. “Is the worst in the nation the best we can do? Where are Governor Perry and the TCEQ in protecting the public by demanding cleaner technologies? Unfortunately, the governor has been fast-tracking permits for contributors, and he’s putting our children’s health at risk as a result.”

If built, these plants would emit 14,000 tons of additional smog-forming nitrogen oxides per year according to the TCEQ. The TCEQ is developing rules that will set the emission limits for smog and mercury from all power plants in east Texas, but these rules are not expected to be finalized until December 2006. The proposed coal plants could be permitted by October of this year.

“Perry is putting the polluter’s interests before those of the people,” said Robert Cervenka, a rancher from Riesel who lives just two miles away from where one of the new plants would be located. “We don’t want to be living downwind from a plant that would emit tons of soot, acid gases that could sear our lungs, mercury that poisons fish in our rivers, and global warming gases that would heat up our atmosphere and dry out our lands.”  

There are new technologies that would gasify the coal first to generate power with far less pollution. 

“We asked the TCEQ to require the utilities to look into this technology, but they refused, and gave Governor Perry’s executive order urging them to permit the plants as rapidly as possible as one of their reasons,” said Cervenka.

On October 12, 2005, TXU executives met with the governor’s chief of staff to discuss the high cost of electricity. Shortly thereafter, on October 27, 2005, the governor issued an executive order ordering the TCEQ and the State Office of Administrative Hearings to “prioritize and expedite” environmental permit applications for power plants. As a result the hearing process, which usually takes a year, must be completed within six months.

“We’re being given the short end of a very tall smokestack,” said Paul Rolke, a neighbor and opponent of the proposed TXU plant near Franklin, and Director of Our Land Our Lives. “The huge proposed 1720 MW Oak Grove plant is being rushed through permitting and hearing.  Its smog-forming emissions are nearly twice the rate of the recently permitted coal plant in San Antonio and the proposed Riesel plant.  Their pollution is 30% higher than other power plants burning the same fuel, dirty lignite.  Governor Perry says the plants need to be rushed in order to reduce the cost of electricity, but that’s just not true. The cost of electricity in Texas is benchmarked only on the cost of natural gas, and so building more coal plants won’t reduce the cost one cent.”

According to a recent study by Texans for Public Justice, TXU alone has shoveled over $750,000 into the pockets of the governor and other legislative powerhouses since 2003. Perry has received $66,890 from coal interests.

“What does TXU get for its contributions? TXU is literally taking the governor’s promise to promptly permit coal plants straight to the banks,” said Smith. “TXU has stated in its presentation to potential funders that early permitting means it gets to tie up long-term contracts for power, reducing competition. The company has reported to stockholders that they plan to build and keep as much capacity operating as possible so it can get emissions reductions credits it can sell later.   This would subject people in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area to another decade of unhealthy additional pollution.”

Texas leads the nation in emissions of toxic mercury from power plants, as well as global warming gas emissions. Twelve water bodies in Texas, including major fishing lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, are heavily contaminated with mercury and the Texas Department of Health advisories warn against consumption of certain species of fish. Mercury exposure can cause permanent brain damage and developmental disabilities in babies born to women who have eaten even a small quantity of mercury-laden fish. 

“These emissions aren’t benign,” said Hadden. “There are serious impacts that result from burning coal for energy. Recent studies have shown a 17 percent increase in the rate of autism for every 1,000 pounds of environmental mercury in a community.”

“These proposed coal-burning power plants would emit over 3,000 lbs of mind-numbing toxic mercury. The plants proposed for down on the bay at Port Comfort would further contaminate waters so polluted with mercury and other pollutants that the area has been off limits to fishing for over a decade,” said Hadden.

The entire Gulf Coast is under a mercury consumption warning for king mackerel.

“Tournament fishermen practice catch and release,” stated Ed Parten, Director of Texas Black Bass Unlimited, “but we’re concerned about the impacts of mercury on the fish, and we also want people to be able to safely feed their families through fishing. Adding more mercury into the air in the worst mercury-polluted state in the nation would make no sense.”

“We call on Governor Perry to put his pen to paper and act to protect people from pollution before proceeding to permit these power plants,” said Hadden.

We ask him to:

  • Cap the smog-forming emissions of proposed plants and require reduction of 70 percent from existing plants;
  • reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent at all existing and proposed plants;
  • require offsets of global warming gases; and,
  • require the utilities to use modern coal gasification or equally clean technologies.

“We also call on all gubernatorial candidates to clearly state what they would do to protect Texans from power plant pollution. It’s a matter of life and breath,” said Hadden.