Groups vow to sue LCRA over pol­lu­tion from power plant

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Asher Price

In an early sign of how fed­eral dis­ap­proval of a state air pol­lu­tion pro­gram will fil­ter down to Cen­tral Texas, three en­vi­ron­men­tal groups said Thurs­day that they would sue the Lower Colorado River Author­ity over its op­er­a­tions of a coal-fired power plant near La Grange.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal groups say the Fayette Power Project failed to up­grade its pol­lu­tion con­trols as it ramped up its ca­pac­ity, dodg­ing fed­eral reg­u­la­tions.

The non­profit river author­ity, which owns the plant jointly with the City of Austin and sup­plies whole­sale power to cities and elec­tric co­op­er­a­tives, said the groups’ claims are based on faulty method­ol­ogy and faulty con­clu­sions.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal groups were em­bold­ened to threaten suit by the de­ci­sion at the end of June to dis­ap­prove the state’s flex­i­ble per­mit­ting pro­gram, which sets over­all emis­sion caps for fa­cil­i­ties, rather than par­tic­u­lar lim­its on emis­sions from a sin­gle boiler. Fayette op­er­ates un­der such a per­mit, and fed­eral reg­u­la­tors have said the pro­gram is too lax.

“Hav­ing very clear stan­dards now gives us the foun­da­tion and sup­port

to move for­ward with this case,” said Luke Met­zger, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of En­vi­ron­ment Texas. The plant is “one of the biggest pol­luters in Cen­tral Texas, and many of our mem­bers are in Cen­tral Texas, so it’s a nat­u­ral tar­get.”

En­vi­ron­ment Texas joined the En­vi­ron­men­tal In­tegrity Project and the Texas Cam­paign for the En­vi­ron­ment in fil­ing the no­tice to sue.

The groups also say the plant has vi­o­lated lim­its on pol­lu­tion of par­tic­u­late mat­ter, or fine par­ti­cles, and that the LCRA has un­der­paid the state more than $500,000 in air pol­lu­tion fees by un­der-re­port­ing par­tic­u­late mat­ter emis­sions in an­nual re­ports filed with the Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity.

Ilan Levin, a lawyer for the En­vi­ron­men­tal In­tegrity Project, said the groups found the claimed prob­lems while scru­ti­niz­ing fa­cil­i­ties with flex­i­ble per­mits. Levin said the groups sus­pect the plant made mod­i­fi­ca­tions as its par­tic­u­late mat­ter emis­sions steadily in­creased, which last hap­pened in 2007. Such mod­i­fi­ca­tions to in­crease ca­pac­ity, cou­pled with the emis­sions in­crease, would re­quire the plant to meet more strin­gent fed­eral rules, the en­vi­ron­men­tal groups say.

“They’re us­ing the data in what we be­lieve is an in­cor­rect way,” LCRA spokes­woman Clara Tuma said. She said she would not go into de­tails be­cause of pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion.

The 1,641-megawatt power plant is ca­pa­ble of pow­er­ing about 1.5 mil­lion homes. Met­zger said the LCRA will be sued be­cause it op­er­ates the plant. The groups say they want the plant to com­ply with fed­eral clean air stan­dards and will ask for un­spec­i­fied civil penal­ties.

LCRA Gen­eral Man­ager Tom Ma­son said his util­ity has been “held up as a pos­i­tive ex­am­ple of how to re­spon­si­bly run a coal plant.”

“Air qual­ity is a per­sonal is­sue to us,” Ma­son said. “Many of us have ded­i­cated our ca­reers to work at an or­ga­ni­za­tion that val­ues en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship. Our em­ploy­ees live near the plant and raise their fam­i­lies there. When fo­cused on clean air in­stead of in­ex­act as­sump­tions, rea­son- able peo­ple will see that LCRA has a very good story to tell.”

The LCRA is in the midst of in­vest­ing $435 mil­lion into the plant to add scrub­bers that will cut emis­sions, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials at the river author­ity. The scrub­bers are de­signed to cut emis­sions of mer­cury, sul­fur diox­ide and ni­tro­gen

ox­ides.

Com­pa­nies are hold­ing their breath as reg­u­la­tors with the Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity and the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency ne­go­ti­ate the fu­ture of the Texas air per­mit­ting pro­gram.

The re­cip­i­ents of the flex­i­ble per­mits are mostly along the Gulf Coast, but the LCRA re­ceived such a per­mit for the Fayette plant in 2002.

Reg­u­lat­ing air pol­lu­tion has been a flash point be­tween Texas and Washington since Pres­i­dent Barack Obama took of­fice. Gov. Rick Perry has said re­peat­edly that more strin­gent en­vi­ron­men­tal laws will harm the econ­omy.

At a brief­ing on the fu­ture of flex­i­ble per­mits at the free-mar­ket think tank Texas Pub­lic Pol­icy Foun­da­tion on Thurs­day, Rep. Jim Kef­fer, REast­land, who heads the House Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee, said he was un­sure whether the Leg­is­la­ture could take much ac­tion in the dis­pute with the fed­eral govern­ment.

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