May 27 6:07 PM

Texas eased pollution rules on coal plants, environmentalists say

Coal-fired power plants were allowed to exceed Clean Air Act limits on emissions, according to a petition filed with the EPA by environmental advocates.
LM Otero / AP

The State of Texas conspired with the coal industry to illegally exempt 19 coal-fired power plants from federal air quality standards. That’s according to a coalition of Texas citizen groups who on Wednesday filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The coalition of community and public interest groups, represented by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, has called on the EPA to overturn the state’s decision to exempt those power plants from federal limits under the Clean Air Act, a press release by EIP said.

“These exemptions for coal-fired power plants are evidence of the state’s chronic disregard of federal Clean Air Act standards,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of EIP, said in the release. “EPA should now step in and force Texas to tighten up these permits to protect public health.”

Residents living downwind of those plants have complained that they were shut out of the process in determining the loosened regulations during startup, shutdown, and maintenance. Particulates, or microscopic soot-like particles, can trigger asthma attacks, heart disease, or cause premature death, EIP said in its release.

The Clean Air Act, which sets a federal standard for particulate matter concentrations in the air, allows each state to create EPA-approved State Implementation Plans (SIP), which include limits on the amount of pollution that can be emitted from industrial sources, Inside Climate News reported.

But Texas regulators with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — which is notorious among environmental groups who allege it is too close to polluters — gave 19 of the state’s coal plants revised air permits from 2011 to 2013 that allowed them to exceed SIP limits during startup, shutdown and maintenance activities, petitioners allege.

“During the course of reviewing the permits for [the power plants], the TCEQ followed its rules,” said TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson in an email to Al Jazeera. He said meetings with the industry were only to “address questions” and “provide direction” to regulated parties.

According to TCEQ, annual emission increases “were less than de minimis,” added Clawson.

In Limestone County, about 115 miles from Dallas, the state’s revised permit, dated Oct. 2, 2012, allowed more than 30-times the limit for released particulate matter than the plant’s previous permit, EIP said in its release.

During the three-year period of loosened regulations, emails and correspondence obtained by the EIP through a public records request showed that the TCEQ “conspired with the state’s electric power industry trade group to revise the air pollution control permits,” the EIP press release said.

The Association of Electric Companies of Texas sent TCEQ proposed language for the revised permits, which state regulators then incorporated — verbatim — into the final text of the permits, EIP said.

“Industry and the state colluded behind closed doors to produce these illegal exemptions, which result in tons of additional air pollution being released annually,” Jim Schermbeck, director of the Dallas-Ft. Worth-based clean air group Downwinders at Risk, said in the EIP press release. “In doing so, they robbed the state’s citizens of both their democracy, and air that’s safe to breathe.”


Coal Energy, EPA, Energy, Pollution

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter