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Judges reject TXU plant
Company stands by assertion that area air quality wouldn't be hurt

Thursday, August 24, 2006

By RANDY LEE LOFTIS
The Dallas Morning News

Plans for a huge increase in Texas' use of coal to meet rising power demands suffered a major setback Wednesday when two state administrative law judges sided with environmentalists against a permit for a new TXU plant near Waco.

The judges rejected Dallas-based TXU's contention that it could build its proposed, two-unit Oak Grove plant in Robertson County without making the region's air pollution worse. TXU has made similar arguments for each of the 11 new coal-burning units that it wants to build, mostly in East Texas.

The 11 TXU plants are among 16 coal-burning units that power companies want to build in Texas. Environmental and health groups say the coal boom would harm air quality across the state's eastern half. Power companies say they would have minimal effect on air quality and are needed to provide electricity for a growing state.

Environmental and health groups say the coal boom would harm air quality across the state's eastern half. Oak Grove is the first new TXU coal plant to go before the State Office of Administrative Hearings in Austin for a formal review. While other proposed plants will get individual hearings, the Oak Grove recommendation could signal problems for other plants.

Administrative Law Judges Carol Wood and Thomas H. Walston issued their decision based on testimony and evidence presented at a hearing in June.

Such recommendations, while not binding on the Texas Commission on Environm! ental Qu ality, typically carry great weight when the agency's commissioners rule on disputed permits.

The commissioners have not yet scheduled a vote on the Oak Grove permit.

Environmentalists who oppose Oak Grove and the other coal-burning units proposed in Texas called the judges' recommendation a stunning upset.

"This is a major victory for people who live downwind of proposed major power plants like this 1,720-megawatt monster," said Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, one of the groups fighting the new coal plants. "Citizens who live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Waco and Austin who would have been affected by the emissions from this proposed plant can take a deeper breath as a result of this decision."

Mr. Smith said opponents of Texas' coal expansion would carry their fight to the environmental commissioners.

Only two commissioners are serving; the third seat is vacant. A 1-1 tie would mean the permit would be denied. But Gov. Rick Perry -- who has backed TXU's coal plans and had issued an executive order putting new coal permits on a fast track -- could prevent a tie by naming a third commissioner before a permit vote.

"We are hopeful that the commissioners will uphold this decision and not bow to TXU's tremendous political weight," Mr. Smith said.

TXU spokeswoman Kim Morgan said the company disagreed with the judges' conclusion that Oak Grove's pollution controls would not protect the region's air quality. She said TXU would not amend its permit request to address the judges' objections, but rather would wor! k to ans wer commissioners' questions.

"We believe the commission will ultimately approve the permit that TXU submitted, because the commission believes Texas deserves cleaner air," Ms. Morgan said.

TXU has vowed to cut overall emissions by 20 percent even while adding the new plants, although it has not released details of how it would achieve those cuts.

"We absolutely believe we can meet these emissions reductions and they are achievable, and we are still prepared to move forward with this package," Ms. Morgan said.

The judges found that TXU's Oak Grove plans failed on crucial environmental points. The plant's controls on nitrogen oxides, a major source of urban smog in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, would not be adequate, they concluded. Based on TXU's permit request, Oak Grove would emit 6,286 tons of nitrogen oxides per year, the most of any of the new plants proposed in Texas.

The judges reached the same conclusion regarding Oak Grove's controls on mercury, a powerful nerve poison. The Oak Grove plant would burn lignite, which has the highest mercury content of any coal in the United States.

According to its permit request, Oak Grove would emit 1,440 pounds of mercury per year, the most of any newly proposed Texas plant.

Since the judges rejected TXU's claims about its ability to control nitrogen oxides and mercury emissions, they also rejected its contention that the emissions would not harm public health.

"Oak Grove failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that its proposed Nox and mercury control technologies would likely achieve the required emissions rates," the judges wrote.

"Oak Grove failed to prove that its proposed source would not cause or contribute to a condition of air pollution,"" the judges said.

"Paul Rolke, head of a local opposition group, Robertson County Our Land Our Lives, said the judges' conclusions should encourage other opponents of new coal plants."

"This shows that citizen groups facing proposed power plants should fight them," Mr. Rolke said. "They can make a big difference".

Staff writer Elizabeth Souder contributed to this report.

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