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TXUs Oak Grove plant hits stump in permitting process

Thursday, August 24, 2006

By J.B. Smith
Tribune-Herald staff writer

Environmentalists battling Texas coal-fired power plants claimed a rare victory Wednesday when administrative law judges in Austin recommended denying TXUs air permit for the Oak Grove lignite plant in Robertson County.

The judges will recommend that the three-member Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reject the permit, saying TXU failed to prove that its pollution technology would be effective and adequate to protect air quality.

The ruling resulted from a "contested case hearing" that took place earlier this summer. Similar to a civil trial, contested case hearings are used to help the commission settle controversial technical issues. The commission is free to reject the recommendation, and TXU officials are predicting the commission will do so.

But Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, one of the coal plant opponents, hails the decision.

"This is a major victory for people who live downwind of proposed major power plants like this 1720-megawatt monster," he said. "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."

In their decision, Judges Carol Wood and Thomas Walston cast doubt on whether TXUs Oak Grove plant could meet the standards the company hammered out with TCEQ staff. A key issue was the effectiveness of the technologies, such as selective catalytic conversion, on removing nitrogen oxide and mercury from Texas lignite coal, which is wetter and burns dirtier than other coals. Selective catalytic converters have never been used on lignite plants, according to testimony in the case.

"The (administrative law judges) find that Oak Grove failed to prove by a preponderance of evidence that its proposed source would not cause or contribute to a condition of air pollution," the judges wrote.

"TXU spokeswoman Kim Morgan said the judges acknowledged that TXU was seeking a high standard of pollution control."

"This proposal for decision underscores the aggressiveness of TXUs proposal," she said. "We believe the commission will ultimately approve the permit TXU has submitted because the commission believes Texans deserve better air vs. the dirtier air proposed by the administrative law judge."

Paul Rolke, president of a Robertson County group called Our Land Our Lives that opposed the plant in the contested case hearing, said the judges decision was encouraging.

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

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