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Study finds Texas coal plants foul neighboring states' air

Image by davipt via Flickr
Coal fired power plant

Coal-fired power plants in Texas are responsible for dozens of bad air days in neighboring states each year, according to a new analysis released by the Sierra Club.  The report attributes as many as 64 days of harmful levels of smog in Oklahoma to Texas’ coal plants. It also ties the plants to as many as 20 days of unhealthy air in Arkansas and up to 16 in Louisiana.

The report supports earlier concerns raised by Oklahoma officials about the potential impacts on their state from the nearly 30 coal-fired plants either operating, permitted or proposed in Texas.

The attorney general for Oklahoma asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency in May to require Texas to show that the new plants will not foul the state’s air before issuing permits for construction.

Sierra Club’s study used computer models to reveal the full extent of the Texas plants’ impact on ozone, or smog, concentrations in other states. The models did not include any emissions source other than the coal plants.

Ozone is produced when pollutants from tailpipes and smokestacks, among other sources, cook in sunlight. Chronic exposure can cause asthma attacks, chest pain and premature death.

In Oklahoma, the study concluded that the proposed plants would cause another 11 days of dirty air north of the Red River over the 64 that exceeded the soon-to-be-finalized federal limits for ozone in the past year.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found fault with the study, saying that it presented “a worst-case scenario” based on the assumption that all of the plants were operating at the same time at full capacity. The agency also questioned whether the modeling was done to EPA standards.

Earlier this year, the EPA acknowledged the problem of pollution in areas downwind of coal plants by proposing rules that would bring major reductions in soot and smog in 31 states, including Texas.

The new regulations will require aging coal-fired plants – many of which are more than 50 years old – to be upgraded with new controls for nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. The rule is expected to cost $2.8 billion a year but promises greater health benefits.

TCEQ has criticized the proposal, asserting in formal comments to the EPA last month that Texas should not be identified as a “significant contributor” to any other place in violation of federal ozone limits. The agency also contends that the EPA’s rules would usurp its authority.

But environmentalists say the proposed rule doesn’t go far enough because it will not stop Texas from permitting more coal plants. The best we can hope for is that some companies may decide to retire older plants rather than invest in new control measures.