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Firm's study on power plants questioned

Wed, Aug. 09, 2006

By SCOTT STREATER
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER

Clean-air advocates are calling for a state investigation into possible conflicts of interest on the part of a consulting firm hired by the state to study whether 17 proposed power plants would damage air quality in Dallas-Fort Worth.

The study - expected to conclude that the 17 power plants would not affect North Texas air quality - was conducted by a consulting firm that also represents Dallas-based TXU Corp., which wants to build 11 of the plants.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the Texas chapter of Public Citizen, said that Environ International Corp.'s research for the state can't be trusted.

"The conflict of interest here is breathtaking," Smith said. "We shouldn't trust TXU's paid contractor to tell the state whether the pollution from 17 proposed coal plants will make the air unsafe over the Dallas-Fort Worth area. All you have to do is follow the money."

Environ was paid by TXU to conduct research and provide expert testimony in June defending the energy company against allegations that one of the proposed plants would pollute the air in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Environ officials defended their work, which is set to be unveiled at a Friday meeting of the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee in Arlington. They say that two different groups of air-quality specialists within the Novato, Calif.-based firm worked separately on the research paid for by TXU and the state-funded study.

"I don't understand this conflict of interest," said Ralph Morris, an air-quality specialist at Environ who oversaw the TXU-funded project. "It doesn't matter who we're doing the work for. We do the technical analysis; we don't do advocacy."

Morris said Environ does work all the time for federal and state government agencies, industry and environmental groups across the country.

"But again we're not advocates. We do technical work," he said.

Kim Morgan, a TXU spokeswoman, said the company hired Environ because "they are the recognized modeling firm" in the state, not because the company was trying to buy influence with the researchers.

"We in no way believe there is a conflict of interest and firmly stand behind Environ and its work," she said.

Smith and Public Citizen are asking state lawmakers to investigate whether conflict of interest has tainted the research. Smith said he wants the state Senate Natural Resources Committee to ask state environmental regulators to reject Environ's research.

A nonprofit group overseeing Environ's research last month told the Senate committee that preliminary results of Environ's study determined that the 17 plants would have little, if any, impact on North Texas air quality. But the conflict of interest allegations stoke the fears of clean-air advocates and elected leaders that the power plants will seriously hamper local efforts to bring the Dallas-Fort Worth region into compliance with federal ozone standards.

Regional leaders in the nine-county area are scrambling to lower air pollution and bring the Dallas-Fort Worth region into compliance with federal ozone standards by a 2010 deadline. If it does not, the region could face severe federal sanctions that could hamper economic development and create hardships of motorists.

Given the seriousness of the issue and the stakes involved, the allegations deserve attention, said Lois Finkelman, a former Dallas city councilwoman and member of the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee.

"I have no scientific reason to question whatever [Environ] has done. But it's hard to defend their results if they come out favorably for the industry when indeed they are getting paid by a member of the industry to do some work for them," Finkelman said. "Perception becomes reality, and it just doesn't smell right, and it jeopardizes their conclusions."

Scott Streater, (817) 390-7657
sstreater@star-telegram.com

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