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Laura Miller: We all deserve a better solution than these fast-tracked, polluting plants.

Dallas Morning News
Monday, August 21, 2006

In 1979, I lived in Los Angeles for a few months. What I remember best was the daily drive to work -- sitting in my parents' old convertible, immersed in a giant, brown bowl of smog.

Los Angeles had the most polluted air in the country.

It still does. The American Lung Association's 2005 list of the 10 most polluted U.S. cities has L.A. at the top.

But guess what? Dallas-Fort Worth is No. 8., and Houston is No. 4. Based on past rankings, we are on a fast track for top billing.

Perhaps that's why I had a visceral reaction to the news that seven electric companies had filed permits to build 17 new coal-burning power plants in the state. Gov. Rick Perry pledged to fast-track the permits, with less time to scrutinize.

Seventeen new plants are a lot, considering we have only 18 now. And those 18 have helped Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston fall out of compliance with federal environmental laws. Austin, San Antonio and Longview are close behind. What's the point of cities screwing in low-wattage light bulbs and buying natural-gas-fueled police cars if you've got the soot from 17 new coal plants billowing your way? Especially when you consider the condition of our current plants.

In a national study released this summer, Texas ranked No. 1 in mercury emissions from power plants. Five of the 10 worst plants are here, and we contribute 10 percent of all the mercury emissions in the country.

Unlike other pollutants, mercury never erodes or vanishes. It's toxic and causes brain and nervous system damage, especially in growing fetuses and small children.

The federal government is at least giving lip service to trying to reduce mercury emissions from power plants -- the tonnage companies emit must be reduced by 2015.

Government regulates sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, too.

But neither Texas nor the federal government is doing anything to reduce an other coal-burning byproduct: carbon dioxide, the No. 1 contributor of greenhouse gases and the No. 1 culprit in the global warming phenomenon. And, no surprise, Texas power plants are No. 1 in carbon dioxide emissions, too.

Texas is not alone in its frenzy to burn coal -- it's cheap, it's plentiful, and utility companies all over America are building coal plants as fast as they can. Why? They want to get in under the wire to avoid having to build cleaner, more expensive plants when carbon dioxide is inevitably regulated.

But other states are pushing back. The California Legislature is debating a bill this month to institute its own carbon dioxide controls. Ten states are working on state-by-state carbon dioxide ceilings.

Most significantly, 11 states are forcing their power plants to explore a burgeoning technology called coal gasification, which bakes the pollutants out of the coal before it is burned. A related technology, called geologic sequestration, takes the carbon dioxide removed in the baking process and injects it deep into the ground instead of spewing it into the air.

Our electric companies say that these new technologies are unreliable and too expensive, and that if we mandate cleaner plants, we will have job losses, a big blow to the economy and dramatically higher electricity bills. (Sounds like automakers in the 1970s, facing emissions controls. It didn't happen.)

But 11 other states disagree. So do the coal gasification companies producing electricity or other gasification products in North Dakota, Florida, Canada, Spain, France, Brazil and India, among others.

As a Dallas resident, a mother of three, a former journalist, a breast cancer survivor and a mayor who represents 1.2 million people who value breathing, I don't believe we can sit back and allow the fast-tracking of 17 more coal-burning power plants without careful study and a forceful push on the industry to embrace newer technologies.

That's why a new coalition of Texas cities, led by Dallas and Houston, has made the decision to formally intervene in the coal-plant permitting process on behalf of millions of citizens in this state.

We need more electricity. We need to build more plants. We know that. But we need to do it right, or we'll regret it in the future if we double the number of dirty, old-technology plants and race ever closer to that No. 1 spot on the 10 most polluted cities list.

Laura Miller is the mayor of Dallas. Her e-mail address is laura.miller@

Dallas Mayor Laura Miller is lobbying other Texas mayors to intervene in the permitting process for proposed coal-fired plants.


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