This little nugget slipped past us last week -- somehow, it didn't make headlines north of Austin -- but it draws the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality into a legal tussle with the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project over pollution permits it issued to Dallas-based electric utility Luminant. The lawsuit says TCEQ issued four air permits authorizing the utility to increase particulate emissions from its Big Brown, Martin Lake and Monticello steam plants in Northeast Texas, and its Sandow plant in Central Texas, by thousands of additional tons per year without public notice or comment as required by law.
Not only that, the complaint claims TCEQ didn't review Luminant's pollution controls or examine whether the increased emissions would violate federal air quality standards.
For the first time last January, Texas utilities were required to apply for permits for increased emissions when they start a unit up or shut it down. It's kind of like a campfire that smokes at first until it gets really hot, but its a process that can last as long as 12 hours. Historically, these periods have been exempted from regulation. "Over the past 10 years or so, there's been a movement toward getting these upset emissions under control, and one way to do that is to do permitting for it," Environmental Integrity Project spokesman Ilan Levin tells Unfair Park.
The problem is that Luminant uses an electrostatic precipitator to filter particulate from its emissions -- an old-school method common in the '60s and '70s. During start-up, it doesn't work. "They can't turn on the pollution control device yet, so these emissions can go for hours at a time, uncontrolled, just belching soot into the air," Levin says.
The result is the company gets a pass on thousands of additional tons of particulate.
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The aim of the permit is to put a cap on that, but Levin says the permits given to Luminant amount to little more than an unlimited license to pollute, approved by the State of Texas, without any input from the public. "Instead of rubber-stamping Luminant's permit application and giving them unlimited emissions between start up and shut down, if we at least get public notice and comment, we can strengthen these permits."
When reached for comment, TCEQ emailed this statement: "We are looking at the lawsuit. However, we can say all these permit amendments were issued in accordance with all applicable law."
Particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants causes chronic bronchitis, aggravates asthma and causes premature deaths to due heart disease. It can travel hundreds of miles on air currents. In fact, once an EPA rule targeting power plant pollution migrating across state lines goes into effect, Luminant will have to clean its plants up or shut them down.
In response, the company has threatened to close coal mines and idle plants across Texas. The rule was supposed to take effect this month, but legal challenges mounted by Luminant and state attorney general Greg Abbott prompted a federal appeals court to issue a stay in late December. The court will hear the case in April.