Enviro groups complain to U.S. EPA about air permits for Texas coal plants

Texas community and public interest organizations on May 27 petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to overturn what they called the state’s decision to exempt large coal-fired power plants from federal limits on particulates and other pollutants during startup, shutdown and maintenance.

The petition challenges actions by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to authorize up to 30 times more particulate matter per hour from power plants than federal standards allow, for a virtually unlimited number of events related to plant startup, shutdown and maintenance, said the Environmental Integrity Project in a May 27 statement. It said these changes to the permits of 35 generating units at 19 power plants across Texas violate the federal Clean Air Act because they roll back standards that protect public health without the EPA review and approval required by statute. The state made the changes without the public hearings open to all Texans that are guaranteed by federal law, the project added.

“These exemptions for coal-fired power plants are evidence of the state’s chronic disregard of federal Clean Air Act standards,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, which filed the petition on behalf of a coalition of Texas organizations. “EPA should now step in and force Texas to tighten up these permits to protect public health.”

“Industry and the state colluded behind closed doors to produce these illegal exemptions, which result in tons of additional air pollution being released annually,” said Jim Schermbeck, Director of the Dallas-Ft. Worth based clean air group Downwinders at Risk. “In doing so, they robbed the state’s citizens of both their democracy, and air that’s safe to breathe.”

The critics said the state’s changes to the permits of these power plants would allow the plants to increase their total combined pollution by thousands of tons above today’s levels.

The Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice filed the petition on behalf of Air Alliance Houston, Environment Texas, Texas Campaign for the Environment, Downwinders at Risk, Neighbors For Neighbors, Public Citizen, and the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition.

Emails and correspondence obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project through a Public Information Act request show that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) from 2011 through 2013 “conspired” with the state’s electric power industry trade group to revise the air pollution control permits, the Environmental Integrity Project claimed. The revisions eliminated federal limits on particulates and made alternative state limits impossible to enforce, it added.

In October 2010, and other dates, the Association of Electric Companies of Texas sent TCEQ proposed language for the revised permits that created exemptions from the federal limits during the startup, shutdown and maintenance of power plants, the enviro groups said. State regulators then incorporated the industry’s language – verbatim – into the final text of the permits, the groups said. The revised permits allow exemptions from federal particulate limits during startup, shutdown and maintenance for more than 1,000 hours a year (the equivalent of six weeks per year). The changes give the green light to far more particulate pollution than ever before reported by the power companies, critics said.

For example, the environmental groups claimed that:

  • In Limestone County, Texas, about 115 miles southeast of Dallas, the state’s revised October 2012 permit for NRG Energy’s (NYSE: NRG) two coal-fired power plant units allow as much as 7,616 pounds of particulates per hour during startup, shutdown and maintenance. That’s more than 30 times the limit of 256 pounds per hour in the plant’s last permit.
  • In Vernon, Texas, 189 miles northwest of Dallas, the state’s revised February 2012 permit for American Electric Power’s (NYSE: AEP) Oklaunion power plant allows up to 1,440 pounds of particulates per hour – seven times the 205 pounds allowed in its previous permit.
  • In Rockdale, Texas, about 59 miles northeast of Austin, the state’s revised December 2011 permit for Luminant’s Sandow Unit 4 allows the release of 3,763 pounds of particulates per hour – more than six times the 569 pounds allowed previously.

The Environmental Integrity Project and its allies are asking EPA to re-open the revised permits and require Texas to eliminate the exemptions from federal pollution limits, allowing public input during the process. If Texas fails to comply within two years, the coalition is urging EPA to impose a federal air pollution control plan for the state.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.