Environmental nonprofits sue EPA over pollution from eight Texas coal plants

Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman

Two national environmental advocacy groups are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over alleged failures to ensure eight coal-fired power plants in Texas, including one near Austin, are meeting federally approved emissions standards that help protect residents from heart attacks and premature deaths.

The lawsuit filed Monday comes after the EPA missed a deadline earlier this year that would potentially have stopped the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality from exempting the coal plants from regulations pertaining to particulate matter emissions, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the enforcement of environmental laws and filed the suit on behalf of the Sierra Club, a climate-focused national nonprofit.

The EPA was supposed to decide by Feb. 20 whether or not to allow the TCEQ to continue exempting the power plants from meeting federal emissions standards, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.

The Sam Seymour Power Plant in Fayette County, about 70 miles southeast of Austin, is among the eight plants listed in the lawsuit. It is owned by Austin Energy and the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Gabriel Clark-Leach, a senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, told the American-Statesman that the nonprofit has been challenging the state's emissions exemptions since at least 2010, and has been asking the EPA to address the problem for about a decade.

"Essentially, Texas has these emission limits for particulate matter," Clark-Leach said. "Particulate matter is soot, it's the black stuff you see coming out of smokestacks. It's a bad idea if you've got people living nearby to emit in excess of those limits."

The TCEQ declined to answer questions by the Statesman, stating it could not comment on pending litigation.

Through the lawsuit, the Environmental Integrity Project and Sierra Club are trying to force stronger controls on particulate matter emissions that are released during coal combustion. The EPA, the federal agency charged with protecting the environment, says on its website that exposure to particulate matter can be harmful, with numerous studies linking it to lung and heart issues.

Those issues can range from nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat and aggravated asthma symptoms to premature death in people with heart or lung disease, the EPA's website states.

After being exempt in 2010, one coal plant in Limestone County increased its particulate matter emissions at one of its boilers from 236 pounds per hour to 8,000 pounds per hour, the Environmental Integrity Project said. Another power plant in Rusk County went from 853 pounds per hour to nearly 3,000 pounds per hour, while an Atascosa County plant went from 437.5 pounds per hour to nearly 1,803.

The Fayette County power plant has three main boilers. Its particulate matter limits went from 274.37 pounds per hour to 2,110.67 pounds per hour for the first two boilers, while the third boiler went from 123.70 pounds per hour to 1,926.92, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.

“There are widely used particulate matter controls that are capable of reducing particulate matter emissions by 99% or more during all phases of power plant operation," Clark-Leach said. "Given the availability of these controls and the public health risks presented by exposure to particulate matter, even at low concentrations, the idea that massive power plants should be allowed to emit particulate matter without any controls for hundreds or thousands of hours each year is unacceptable.”

Four of the power plants, not including the one in Fayette County, have in recent years decided to try to switch to natural gas instead of coal or to shut down altogether.

Even so, Clark-Leach said it is likely the EPA will not approve the state's request to allow the exemptions for the remaining four plants to continue because the TCEQ has failed to show that it would still meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

“The negative health effects of particulate matter are well understood and known to the TCEQ and EPA," Clark-Leach said. "Texas’ decision to allow these power plants to bypass particulate matter pollution controls repeatedly and for extended periods without doing the work necessary to determine whether it is safe is both irresponsible and contrary to law. EPA action putting an end to this practice is long-overdue and we are confident that this lawsuit will help EPA do the right thing.”