Groups vow to sue LCRA over pollution from power plant
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
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.