HOUSTON (CN) – The Environmental Protection Agency said it plans to withdraw a mandate that Texas coal-fired power plants reduce their pollution, but also found five counties have dangerous levels of toxic gas linked to coal plants.
Industry-friendly Texas is engaged in a seemingly endless fight against the EPA’s efforts to enforce the Clean Air Act in the state, which has more than a dozen coal-fired power plants with the capacity to generate 19,000 megawatts of electricity.
Texas sued the EPA in March to block a regional haze plan the agency implemented in January that would require seven Texas coal-fired power plants to reduce their pollutants by installing expensive “scrubbers” that filter sulfur dioxide.
The Regional Haze Rule requires state and federal agencies to work together to improve visibility in 156 national parks and wilderness areas, according to the EPA.
In Texas, the regulation is meant to improve visibility in Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The parks are in southwest Texas, hundreds of miles from the targeted power plants
Texas and several electricity producers claim in court documents the equipment upgrades are cost prohibitive and would likely force them to shut down the plants, which would blinker 8,400 megawatts, enough to power more than 1.6 million homes.
A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit sided with Texas and the power companies in July and stayed the rule.
Hoping to work out their differences on the haze plan, the EPA and Texas agreed in August to stay proceedings for 90 days.
Settlement talks broke down, so the EPA announced Monday it plans to file a motion this week to remand the rule back to the agency to work on a compromise plan.
Texas and its co-plaintiff power companies said in court filings this week they need to see the EPA’s motion before they agree to it.
The Sierra Club intervened in the case for the EPA and submitted expert reports that said reducing sulfur dioxide from the plants would save more than $3 billion in public health costs.
“The emissions from these Texas coal plants not only create haze for our treasured national parks like Big Bend National Park but also have a high impact on public health for children and seniors with respiratory illnesses and asthma attacks in Northeast Texas,” Chrissy Mann of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign said in a statement.
EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said she couldn’t comment on what changes the EPA may consider for Texas’ haze plan.
While disappointed in the EPA’s plans to withdraw the haze rule, the Sierra Club praised the agency’s announcement Wednesday that it had designated five East Texas counties as not meeting national air-quality standards for sulfur dioxide.
The designation puts Texas on the clock to clean up the toxic gas, according to the EPA.
“Texas has 18 months to come up with a plan to address the high levels of SO2 [sulfur dioxide]. The reductions have to be in place as expeditiously as practical but no later than 5 years,” agency spokeswoman Jennah Durant said in an email.
Though the EPA hasn’t named the source of the sulfur dioxide pollution, Texas electricity provider Luminant owns three coal-fired power plants in the area.
“Luminant’s Monticello, Martin Lake and Big Brown power plants are operating in compliance with all the environmental rules and laws of our state and nation,” company spokeswoman Meranda Cohn said in an email.
Cohn said Luminant will have to work with Texas to decide whether to install new equipment at the plants, change their operations or go to court to fight the designation.
“We are considering our legal options,” she said.
She said Luminant is skeptical about how the EPA came up with the “nonattainment” designation for sulfur dioxide in the area surrounding its plants.
“The final SO2 designations by the EPA are based on computer modeling funded by environmental groups. We firmly believe these models do not accurately predict actual emissions measurements and that these designations should be determined by real-world emissions data from air quality monitors,” Cohn said.
Though President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to revive the coal industry, experts say the abundance of cheap natural gas in the United States, supplied by its resurgent drilling industry and President Barack Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, has put coal-fired plants on the verge of extinction.
Neil Carman is the clean air director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. He said in an interview he worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for 12 years in West Texas, inspecting 200 industrial plants a year, which gave him insight into how corrosive and toxic burning coal is.
He said a big coal-fired power plant can burn through “a train load of coal, 120 to 130 rail cars, 10,000 tons of coal in a day” and the process is so corrosive to the boilers that they have to be shut down every few months for maintenance.
“Coal is dead. When are these plants going to shut down? These are Model-T coal plants. They’re expensive to operate. And you know with all the acid gas in the coal, from the chlorine, to the sulfur, to the fluorine, it just eats up the boilers,” Carman said.