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Environmental groups likely to ask feds to oversee Texas coal plants

Alleging that Texas environmental regulators met privately with utility lobbyists before easing pollution reporting requirements for coal-fired power plants, a coalition of environmental groups is likely to ask the federal government today to revisit and tighten permits.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality authorized up to 30 times more soot per hour from power plants than federal standards allow at 19 power plants across the state, say the members of the coalition, which is led by the Environmental Integrity Project.

The state agency made the changes several years ago — allegedly inserting language into permits that were provided by industry lobbyists — without holding public hearings that the group says are guaranteed by federal law.

“They’re rolling over the federal Clean Air Act,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

Officials at TCEQ say public notice for the permits was not triggered because they did not pierce key emissions limits and did not involve physical changes in the emissions units.

“The permit language found in power plant permits is the result of negotiated efforts that transpired between TCEQ and industry over the course of a year,” TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said. “It is necessary for TCEQ to work with regulated entities to ensure that they can comply with the conditions or requirements of a permit.”

The plant nearest to Austin that saw its permit revised, Sandow 4, is in Rockdale, about 60 miles northeast of Austin. According to Schaeffer’s group, in December 2011 the state revised the plant’s hourly limits for soot, from 569 pounds to 3,763 pounds during maintenance, startup and shutdown operations.

Particulate matter has been linked to heart disease, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Related: Coal: Bankruptcies and more layoffs

Luminant, the company that operates Sandow, said the emissions at issue are unavoidable and relatively minimal.

“These emissions have been and will continue to be appropriately monitored, evaluated for adverse impact to the public health and permitted by the TCEQ,” said Brad Watson, a spokesman for Luminant who noted that last year a federal judge called a suit filed by Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of the Sierra Club and against Luminant “frivolous” and “groundless.”

(In 2013, as part of a settlement with Environmental Integrity Project, the Lower Colorado River Authority agreed to cut soot emissions at the Fayette Power Project, a coal-fired power plant it co-owns with the city of Austin.)

Schaeffer said the permit revisions were the consequence of correspondence and meetings between the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, a trade group, utility officials and TCEQ officials.

Throughout 2010, industry officials sent or discussed proposed language for the revised permits that created exemptions from the federal limits during the startup, shutdown and maintenance of power plants, according to documents obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project through open records requests. State regulators then folded the industry’s language, word for word, into the final text of the permits, the environmental coalition says.

Monitoring options, for example, were eased to make it difficult to determine Clean Air Act compliance, says Schaeffer, making limits for plants meaningless.

But John Fainter, president of the trade group, said the communication with state officials was not an effort to win permission to pollute more.

The association is “proud of its members’ record of compliance with state and federal regulations,” Fainter said.

While the environmental coalition is looking to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and regulate power plants more vigilantly than the state of Texas, it appears the EPA would do so only reluctantly.

“While EPA believes states are best suited to run federally approved environmental programs, we have an obligation to fellow Texans to act in the rare case that the state regulatory agency cannot because of new state laws,” said David Gray, a spokesman for the EPA regional office in Dallas. “It takes a lot of work and time for states to receive EPA approval and no business benefits when delegation is threatened.”

This article was written by Asher Price from Austin American-Statesman and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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