Public Records Show State Conspired with Industry to Illegally Exempt 35 Units from Federal Particulate Limits During Startup, Shutdown, and Maintenance
Texas community and public interest organizations on Wednesday, May 27, 2015, petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to overturn 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.
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 – inserting language into permits that was provided by industry lobbyists — without the public hearings open to all Texans that are guaranteed by federal law.
“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.”
Texans who live downwind from the power plants complain that they were shut out of the process, and are now suffering as a result.
“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.”
Particulates are microscopic soot-like particles that trigger asthma attacks, heart disease and premature death. The 19 power plants in question are already responsible for 30 percent of all of the particulate pollution produced by large industrial sources in the state, as well as 31 percent of the nitrogen oxides (which contribute to smog) and 78 percent of the sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain).
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. Each additional ton of particulates results in about $1.2 million in public health costs, according to an EPA estimate for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
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.
“Coal plants in Texas have been spewing dangerous amounts of fine soot during startup and shutdown, and the state has been turning a blind eye to the problem,” said Adrian Shelley, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston. “EPA needs to crack down on this illegal pollution for the sake of our most vulnerable residents – children and the elderly.”
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 revisions eliminated federal limits on particulates and made alternative state limits impossible to enforce.
On October 25, 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. State regulators then incorporated the industry’s language – verbatim – into the final text of the permits. In the copied text, the state allows utilities to design their own emission limits, define “startup,” “shutdown,” and “maintenance” virtually any way they want, and switch monitoring options in a way that makes it impossible to determine compliance. The combined effect of these changes was to make the state’s new so-called “limits” for the power plants meaningless.
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.
- In Limestone County, Texas, about 115 miles southeast of Dallas, the state’s revised Oct. 2, 2012, permit for NRG’s 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 3, 2012, permit for the American Electric Power’s 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 Dec. 16, 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.
Emails between the Association of Electric Companies of Texas and TCEQ show that industry representatives and state regulators held at least four private meetings to discuss the permit revisions, with the agenda set by the industry group.
The permit revisions had the effect of nullifying federal Clean Air Act hourly limits on particulate pollution during the startup and shutdown of power plants.
“Coal burners such as the Luminant power company have been using this startup and shutdown exemption for decades to pollute the air in our communities without liability,” said Travis Brown, president of Neighbors for Neighbors in central Texas. “This must stop. Our health is being harmed.”
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.
THE GROUPS INVOLVED:
- The Environmental Integrity Project is a 12-year-old, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., that works to hold polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.
- Earthjustice uses the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health; to preserve magnificent places and wildlife; to advance clean energy; and to combat climate change.
- Air Alliance Houston advocates for Houston’s fenceline communities by working toward a future in which no one’s health or quality of life is adversely impacted by air pollution.
- Environment Texas is a statewide grassroots advocate for clean air, clean water and open spaces.
- Texas Campaign for the Environment focuses on local and state issues, organizing award-winning campaigns to protect public health in the state.
- Downwinders at Risk advocates for clean air in North Texas through community organizing initiatives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
- Neighbors for Neighbors is a Central Texas community organization working for clean air and water, sustainability of natural resources, and holding local polluters accountable.
- Public Citizen’s Texas Office works on environmental enforcement policies, global warming, promoting renewable/clean energy, improving state government agency operations, and other consumer, health and safety policies.
- The Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (“SEED”) Coalition works for clean air, and supports affordable energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions to meet our energy needs.