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Public Citizen Calls on DFW State Representatives to Investigate “Breathtaking” Conflict of Interest With Significant Consequences for Area’s Air Quality

August 9, 2006

Public Citizen Calls on DFW State Representatives to Investigate “Breathtaking” Conflict of Interest With Significant Consequences for Area’s Air Quality

AUSTIN – An air quality modeling firm paid by the state to determine whether 17 proposed new power plants will pollute the area’s already-poor air has been paid to be an expert witness for TXU Energy, the company building 11 of the plants. In addition, the firm has relied on a “secret plan” for reducing emissions from TXU, making it hard to asses the validity of the firm’s conclusions. Such a conflict of interest is “breathtaking,” Public Citizen said today, and the organization called on state lawmakers to investigate and act.

Environ, a Novatas, Calif.,-based air pollution modeling company, was hired in November 2005 by the state of Texas to study the cumulative impact of pollution on the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area from 17 proposed new coal-fired power plants. Environ is scheduled to present the results of its study to the North Texas Steering Committee on Friday.

However, when Environ was hired by the state, it had already begun working for TXU. TXU hired Environ in October 2005 to study the impact of a proposed plant called Oak Grove.

“The conflict of interest here is breathtaking,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “We shouldn’t trust TXU’s paid contractor to tell the state whether the pollution from 17 proposed coal plants will make the air unsafe over the Dallas-Fort Worth area. All you have to do is follow the money and you’ll see that those who pay the most get their work done on time – while the rest of us wait. This is a deal as dirty as the air over Dallas.”

Last fall, the staff of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) said that 70 percent reductions in pollution from power plants would be needed by 2010 to ensure that the air is safe to breathe in the DFW area. The agency also said that ozone levels need to be reduced by about 6 parts per billion (ppb) and that a 70 percent reduction from power plants could achieve as much as a third of the needed DFW pollution reductions.

A rush then began to get permits for the coal plants before the TCEQ could approve a clean air plan for the DFW area.

“If these plants are permitted before the plan is finalized, it will be much harder for the state to force them to reduce emissions,” Smith said. “The state asked Environ to assess the impact of all these proposed plants on the DFW area. The study was originally expected to be completed by June 9, but Environ was unable to complete its modeling by then. They did, however, manage to complete their work for TXU, while the state was left waiting.”

Environ told the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), which is managing Environ’s study for the state, that it was also working for TXU, but HARC didn’t see this as a problem because different employees were doing the work, according to a HARC representative. In May, 2006 Environ was hired to be an expert witness for TXU and testify in support of its application to build a 1,720 megawatt lignite plant near Franklin, in Robertson County. The plant would emit as much smog-forming pollution as by 350,000 cars, according to an analysis by the Sierra Club. Environ completed its study on the Oak Grove plant and submitted testimony to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) on June 12.

Ralph Morris, an Environ employee, testified on June 20 at a hearing for TXU’s proposed Oak Grove plant that emissions from the plant could add almost 2 ppb of ozone in Johnson, Tarrant and Parker Counties, all of which are part of the nine-county DFW non-attainment area, and up to 1 ppb in Dallas and Ellis Counties. Despite this, Environ concluded that the proposed plant impact on the DFW area would not be “significant,” even though the ozone level would exceed the air quality standard. Under cross-examination, Environ admitted to being paid $220 per hour by TXU.

TXU has promised to reduce its overall emissions by 20 percent even while proposing to build 11 new coal plants. It says it will accomplish this by reducing emissions from its existing coal plants, but it won’t tell the public where these emissions reductions will occur. TXU has told Environ, however, which is using this secret plan in its modeling.

HARC released preliminary findings from the study of the 17 proposed plants to the Senate Natural Resources Committee on July 13, claiming that the air will be slightly cleaner if these new plants are built. It still did not release the full study or the secret assumptions and underlying data that TXU gave it and upon which they based their conclusions.

“Environ has already shown whose work takes priority, and it’s the work for TXU that gets done first,” Smith said. “How can Environ work for the state and conduct what is supposed to be a scientific and unbiased assessment of the impact of pollution from TXU’s proposed coal plants while taking money from TXU to be a witness on one of their proposed plants? We can’t trust TXU’s high-dollar consultants to fairly evaluate TXU’s secret air pollution reduction plan. We demand that the state hire another contractor for an unbiased evaluation. We call on the state to reject TXU’s secret plan, or make it public so we can see if they are making real reductions or just blowing smoke.”

Air in the DFW area is so polluted that the region will fail to meet federal guidelines for healthy air and the federal deadlines – again – as it has every year since 1990, according to the TCEQ.