Last week, Air Air Alliance Houston and the Sierra Club joined forces in Austin to attend a public hearing on the EPA’s proposed Regional Haze Rule. Haze is air pollution that affects scenic views in our national parks and wilderness areas. It is caused by air pollutants including sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulates. Haze from one state can travel into neighboring states and impact their scenic views as well.
Texas is by far the largest contributor to haze in the region. In 2012 Texas emitted 338,853 tons of SO2 pollution–more that twice that of Oklahoma and Arkansas, which combined for 152,599 tons. Much of Texas’ SO2 pollution comes from coal fired power plants, of which there are 19 in Texas.
The Clean Air Act is often described as a state/federal partnership, and it tasked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) with addressing haze in its State Implementation Plan (SIP). In 2009, the TCEQ proposed a do-nothing plan that did not impose any controls on any of the 19 coal plants in Texas and would not have solved Texas’ haze problem for 140 years.
The EPA responded with its own rule, called a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP), that adressed deficiencies it found in rules from both Texas and Oklahoma. The resulting Regional Haze Rule addresses haze in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas and concerns scenic views in Big Bend National Park, the Guadalupe Mountains, and the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma. The rule proposed controls for 15 of the 19 coal fired power plants in Texas, withs seven of requiring upgrades to their SO2 scrubbers within three years, seven requiring scrubber retrofits within five years, and one facility already meeting the proposed limits with its current operations.
The eleven of us who traveled from Houston to Austin for the public hearing were joined by dozens more supporters from around the region. All told, 62 people testified to the EPA, with only 2 opposed to the rule. Our voices were added to those repeating the facts as laid out by the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign:
- National park and wilderness tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in America.
- Preserving scenic view is part of our responsibility to ensure that everyone can enjoy happy, healthy days outside.
- TCEQ proposed a do-nothing plan that made it necessary for EPA to act.
- Limiting SO2 emissions from Texas’ coal fired power plants is a strong, cost-effective plan.
- The rule will have important health co-benefits, annually eliminating 1,600 premature deaths, 2,200 non-fatal heart attacks, and more than one million lost work and school days.
We did have a few criticisms of the rule as well. It doesn’t consider limiting nitrogen oxides from coal plants, as did a similar rule in New Mexico. It also didn’t propose control for 4 of the 19 coal fired power plants in Texas, including the W. A. Parish plant southwest of Houston, which the rule claimed was too far from any scenic areas to contribute to haze.
We are also concerned that not enough is being done to address emissions from the San Miguel facility south of San Antonio, which has a proposed emission limit that is five to ten times higher than that of any other facility. San Miguel burns an unusually high sulfur content coal, and the EPA determined that it was not economically feasible to limit emissions any further. While we understand that the regional haze portion of the Clean Air Act does require cost considerations, we are concerned that pollution from this facility might have impacts beyond simply haze.
On balance, though, we are pleased with this rule and with EPA’s commitment to address the problem. And we are very pleased with the significant health co-benefits the rule will bring.
To everyone who attended the hearing last week: thank you! We had an amazing crowd and we couldn’t have done it without you.
And to our friends in the Sierra Club Houston office, the Sierra Club Texas chapter, and the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign: thank you as well! Sierra Club has an impressive team and amazing members befitting of the oldest environmental organization in the nation. We always enjoy partnering with you and we look forward to doing so again in the future.