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Texas power plants pack emissions list
State dominates group's U.S. report on mercury, carbon dioxide pollution

Friday, July 28, 2006
The Dallas Morning News

Texas power plants dominate the list of the nation's biggest emitters of toxic mercury and are among the biggest sources of carbon dioxide, a study released Thursday shows.

The Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group headed by a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement chief, analyzed the federal government's emissions data for all U.S. power plants. Texas' worst showing by far was for mercury, a powerful nerve poison released into the air when power plants burn coal.

Five of the top 10 plants in total emissions of mercury were in Texas, including the No. 1 polluter, TXU's Martin Lake plant, south of Longview in East Texas.

American Electric Power's Pirkey plant, also near Longview, ranked No. 1 in mercury emission rate the amount of emissions per power generated.

Several Texas plants also ranked high in total emissions or emissions rates of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. Also Online

Texas plants high on emissions list (pdf) (Dallas Morning News site)

TXU's Martin Lake plant and NRG Energy's Parish plant in Fort Bend County were No. 5 and 6, respectively, in total carbon dioxide emissions nationwide. Five of the country's top 50 carbon dioxide emitters were in Texas.

More coal plants ahead

The report looked at emissions from existing power plants. It did not include the 16 new coal-burning generating units that power companies plan to build in Texas in the next three to five years.

Those plants are on a fast-track permit review under an executive order that Gov. Rick Perry issued last year. The order cuts the time for the public to review and possibly challenge a plant's draft permits from about a year to six months.

Mr. Perry's opponents for re-election Democrat Chris Bell and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman have criticized the fast-track order and say they would crack down on power plant pollution.

Nationwide, about 120 new coal-burning units are in the works. Higher natural gas prices, plus political support from the White House, are spurring the coal boom.

The report's authors said their findings point out the need for states to act on emissions, such as mercury and carbon dioxide, where they say federal action has been inadequate or, in the case of carbon, nonexistent.

"Some electric power companies have made long-term commitments to clean up their plants, either to settle legal actions or in anticipation of future regulation," said Ilan Levin, the report's chief author and counsel to the Environmental Integrity Project. Former EPA enforcement head Eric Schaeffer is the project's director.

Other companies have resisted, Mr. Levin said. "Until the public and policymakers hold the electric industry to its promised cleanup of the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants, Americans will continue to bear unnecessary health and environmental costs," he said.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state's environmental agency, declined to comment on the study. A spokeswoman said the agency's mercury policies are based on instructions from the Legislature.

Mercury is a health hazard when it builds up in fish and other parts of the natural environment. It is especially dangerous for pregnant women and their children. Coal-burning power plants are by far the nation's biggest mercury source.

The Bush administration adopted a mercury rule in March 2005 that requires overall reductions from power plants across the country but does not order each plant to cuts its own emissions. Plants can choose not to reduce emissions but still comply by buying credits from other plants that made extra reductions.

Administration officials said their approach would achieve reductions while giving companies flexibility in making those cuts.

Environmental and health advocates criticized the rule because it does not protect people living near power plants that don't cut their emissions. They were also unhappy that companies have until 2015 to comply.

Companies respond

The Texas plants listed with high mercury emissions mostly burn lignite, a low-energy Texas coal that generally has more mercury than coal from other regions. Most of the new coal-burning units planned in Texas would burn cleaner Wyoming coal.

Mike Young, spokesman for Southwestern Electric Power Co., the unit of American Electric Power that owns the Pirkey plant in Harrison County, said lignite's higher mercury content explains the state's national ranking in mercury emissions.

The Pirkey plant has the nation's highest mercury emissions rate, 219 pounds of mercury for each million megawatt-hour of electricity the plant generates.

Mr. Young said the plant already removes half of the total mercury from its coal and 70 percent of the most toxic form, oxidated mercury. The company is testing equipment to achieve deeper cuts required by the 2015 under a new federal rule, he said.

TXU spokesman Chris Schein said the company would cut its emissions, including mercury, by 20 percent from 2005 levels even after adding 11 new coal-burning plants. The new units would rise at existing TXU plants, mostly east or south of Dallas-Fort Worth.

In a letter dated Thursday, TXU asked the state's environmental commission to make the pledge legally enforceable, a step meant to counter critics who have questioned the company's commitment to cutting its pollution.

TXU plants with the highest mercury emission rates are Big Brown, in Freestone County, No. 3 nationwide; Sandow Unit 4, Milam County, No. 7; Martin Lake, Rusk County, No. 13; and Monticello, Titus County, No. 17.

Texas power plants also occupied five of the top 50 spots for carbon dioxide emissions, which are not subject to any federal or Texas controls. The biggest Texas emitter was TXU's Martin Lake coal plant, which ranked fifth. It released 21.6 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2005, the report noted.

Mr. Schein said TXU was addressing carbon dioxide emissions by pledging $2 billion to seek new technological fixes. But Tom "Smitty" Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, said TXU and other Texas companies would dramatically increase emissions of global warming gases when they build new coal plants.

The new plants would boost Texas' carbon dioxide emissions by 115 million tons per year, equal to emissions from 20 million cars, he said. Meanwhile, 28 other states are acting to curb global warming by restricting emissions or pushing energy efficiency, he added.

The Texas Legislature could consider carbon regulations when it convenes in January.

To silence critics, TXU asks state to set emissions cap

Dallas-based TXU, which pledged to cut emissions by 20 percent as it builds 11 coal-burning units, asked Texas regulators Thursday to make its promise legally binding.

TXU asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to put a firm cap on its pollution. Under a cap, TXU could adjust its cuts from plant to plant instead of committing to a set level at each plant.

It's unclear how enforcement might work.

TXU spokesman Chris Schein said TXU hoped to silence critics who have doubted the pledge. "We've met or exceeded every one of our promises for emissions reductions," he said.

But Tom "Smitty" Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, said TXU was "trying to deflect your attention from the fact that they're putting more smoke in the air in Dallas-Fort Worth."

Randy Lee Loftis

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