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Archive for the ‘Water’ Category

Environmental advocacy group members of the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition (CGCC) filed suit against the United Bulk coal export terminal in Davant for violating the federal Clean Water Act.

Coal Export Terminal Pollution on the MississippiThe terminal, owned by United Bulk Terminals Davant LLC, has operated for more than four decades, shipping millions of tons of coal and petcoke – an oil-refining byproduct with high levels of arsenic, mercury and other toxins hazardous to human health and aquatic life – every year to overseas markets.  But before they are shipped, that coal and petcoke sits in huge, open piles along the river, and blows right into the river and the wetlands when there is rain or wind.

Officially, the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN), Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and Sierra Club are the parties that filed the suit in New Orleans’ U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The groups, represented by Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic, are members of the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition (CGCC), which is working to clean-up existing coal terminals in the Gulf Coast region, stop any new coal export terminals, and promote cleaner, safer industries and jobs.

The suit contends that United Bulk has illegally discharged coal and petcoke into the river every day that it has operated for at least five years. It points out that coal and petcoke have been discharged into the river in enough quantities to produce visible spills on a regular basis. The suit also cites the EPA’s determination that storm water runoff from coal piles “can flush heavy metals from the coal, such as arsenic and lead, into nearby bodies of water.”

The international market for U.S. coal has also grown increasingly volatile. Port authorities on the West Coast and in Corpus Christi, Texas have concluded that the coal export market is simply too risky to invest significant sums in new or expanded shipping facilities.

For more information, check out The Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition’s website.

 

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2014-03-10 Climate change means less guacamole - WikimediaWhen we think of the effects of climate change, we typically think of rising sea level, heat waves, drought and volatile weather. What we don’t often think about is guacamole. Or to be more specific, foods that are in danger because of climate change.

In its 2014 annual report, the popular Mexican food chain Chipotle warned investors that, “Increasing weather volatility or other long-term changes in global weather patterns, including any changes associated with global climate change, could have a significant impact on the price or availability of some of our ingredients”. The report went on to add “in the event of cost increases with respect to one or more of our raw ingredients, we may choose to temporarily suspend serving menu items, such as guacamole or one or more of our salsas, rather than paying the increased cost for the ingredients”.

While Chipotle would be largely affected by a drop in avocado production, which is expected to drop by 40% over the next three decades, other crops are in danger too, such as almonds, walnuts, oranges and grapes. A common thread between all of these crops is that they are grown in California, which has been through a particularly brutal drought this year. While California has always been susceptible to droughts, climate change is making them worse and more frequent and can be expected to do so to an even greater extent in the future.

In November of this past year, news outlets reported on a leaked draft of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report noted that food production could drop as much as 2% per decade in the coming century compared to production estimates before climate change. All the while, the population on the planet is expected to reach between 8 and 11 billion people by 2100.

The bottom line is that climate change has effects beyond the most salient weather changes – climate change can negatively affect our ability to produce food. This is particularly dangerous as the diets of the world’s citizens become more similar – scientists note that this makes our food supply even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.  A decreased ability to produce food can cause increased food prices, limited access to fresh food, global food shortages, and in turn, political turmoil.

Can we really afford to not address climate change?

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2014-02-28 Drilling Rig explores the shale - Mladen Antonov AFP Getty Images

Drilling Rig Reflected in Wastewater Holding Pond
Photo by Mladen Antonov, AFP/Getty Images

Studies released over the past few months have linked pollution from natural gas extraction with birth defects.

In a study released in January by Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers examined data from 124,842 births between 1996 and 2009 in rural Colorado. They examined correlations between how close and dense natural gas development was to the pregnant mother and incidences of various birth defects, including congenital heart defects, neural tube defects, oral cleft, preterm birth and low term birth weight.

The study found that the most exposed mothers, who lived in areas containing over 125 natural gas wells per mile, were 30% more likely to have a child born with a congenital heart defect than a mother who does not live near any wells. One might ask – how is this possible?

Many pollutants from the natural gas extraction processes, including toluene, xylenes and benzene, are suspected to cause physiological abnormalities and mutations in human DNA. These pollutants are known to be able to cross the placenta blood barrier, raising the possibility of fetal exposure to these and other air pollutants.

Of course, air pollutants are not the only danger posed by natural gas extraction. The fluid used in this process is already known to contain over a hundred known or suspected endocrine disruptors – chemicals that can interfere with the body’s responses to estrogen and testosterone – which can lead to many health problems including infertility and cancer. What researches found in a late 2013 study was that groundwater samples taken from areas around natural gas extraction contained very high levels of these endocrine disruptors, while groundwater taken from an area without natural gas had much lower levels. In other words, natural gas extraction is linked with the contamination of groundwater with chemicals that cause infertility.

While researchers cannot say that their studies definitively prove that the natural gas extraction process causes birth defects or groundwater contamination, it is clear that more research needs to be done and the process needs to be further regulated before America continues on an ‘All of the Above’ energy policy. These studies suggest that the future health of generations to come depends on it.

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Updating the the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2020 to become the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2024 probably doesn’t sound super exciting, but there’s almost certainly some aspect of the choices that will soon be made on your behalf that you care about.

IMG_48691. Climate Change: I’m not going to try to convince anyone reading this that our planet’s climate is changing and that humans are largely responsible for that change.  Nor am I going to try to convince you that those changes are going to be largely detrimental to human prosperity.  But if you already recognize those two basic truths, then you will definitely want to listen up.  Austin Energy is proposing to not only run Austin’s portion of the Fayette coal plant until 2025, but also to dramatically increase its use of natural gas by adding a new 800 megawatt gas plant to its energy portfolio.  That’s bigger than Austin’s portion of Fayette.  And although natural gas emits less carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of energy production than burning coal, once the substantial impact of the roughly 3% of gas that leaks into the atmosphere during extraction, processing and transportation is accounted for, natural gas is almost as harmful to the climate as coal.  That’s because the primary component of natural gas, methane, is 87 times more powerful of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over 20 years.  Although many people focus on the 100 year time frame when talking about climate change, we can’t afford to ignore our more immediate future.  Central Texas has already experienced its share of climate impacts over the past few years in the form of drought, wildfires and floods.  We must stop those impacts from worsening at a greater rate than they already will be.  Natural gas isn’t going to save us.  Even without the massive problem of leaking methane, burning gas instead of coal only decreases our climate impact by about half, so it’s not a long term solution anyway – the best it could have been was a stopgap.  Instead of investing in infrastructure that won’t get us where we need to be, we can make better decisions now.

Attend one of Austin Energy’s stakeholder meetings this week and ask the staff to consider the full climate impacts of energy sources.

2. Jobs: Developing renewable energy sources creates 3 times as many jobs as developing fossil fuel energy sources per dollar invested.  Whereas a large chunk of the cost connected to a coal plan or a gas plant is for the coal and gas, the wind and sun are free.  So, instead of paying for the privilege of burning a limited resource, we can pay people to harness the energy from free and unlimited resources.

Across the U.S., solar energy jobs grew 20% from 2012 to 2013, compared to average job growth across all industries of 1.9%.  A large percentage of that growth was in Texas, but Texas still ranks 44th in solar jobs per capita.  Increasing Austin Energy’s solar goal will bring more jobs to Texas, but it’s increasing the local solar goal that will have the most impact on local job creation.  The Austin Local Solar Advisory Commission unanimously recommended that Austin Energy’s solar goal for 2020 be increased from 200 megawatts (MW) to 400 MW.  It also recommended that at least half of that solar development be local and at least half of that local solar be customer controlled (that’s what you see on residential and business rooftops and yards).  According to the LSAC’s calculations done using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Jobs and Economic Development Impact (JEDI) model, the $60 million it would take to develop that amount of local solar would bring the Austin area a net of $300 million in local economic benefits – wages, taxes, etc.  If Austin Energy adopts policies to give preference to local companies who hire local workers, our community can benefit even more.  On the other hand, we are currently sending $80 million to Montana each year for the coal we burn in the Fayette coal plant.

Tell Austin Energy that you support growing local jobs by increasing our solar goals, including the local and customer owned solar goals.

3. Water: If you live in central Texas, I don’t need to tell you that water is a huge issue – in fact it’s just a big issue for Texas that the Legislature, with voter approval appropriated $2 billion dollars to fund water projects, with 20% of those funds to be used on water conservation efforts.  We can’t make it rain more, so we are going to have to make some choices about what we want to use water for.  The Fayette coal plant, which Austin Energy owns one third of, needs about 5 billion gallons of water per year to operate.  And lest you start thinking natural gas plants are the answer, know that over 39 billion gallons of water was used in fracking jobs in Texas between January 2011 and May 2013.  Producers in the Eagle Ford Shale play are especially wasteful, using an average of 4.4 million gallons of water per well.  That’s water that can’t be used for domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural, or ecosystem uses.

Tell Austin Energy to focus investment on drought proof energy sources like wind and solar.

4. Health: Air pollution from burning coal and extracting natural gas are taking a real toll on human health in Texas.  The Fayette coal plant is responsible for over $55.5 million in health impacts from air pollution.  Those impacts include asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, heart attacks and the associated hospital visits and deaths.  Even so, Austin Energy has proposed running its portion of Fayette until 2025.

Lack of regulation over the natural gas industry, which has operations strewn across vast areas has resulted in a tragic disregard for human well being.  If you haven’t already, read this excellent piece of investigative journalism about how your fellow Texans are being assaulted with toxic chemicals in the Eagle Ford Shale area.  Instead of building a large new gas plant to drive up demand for dangerous fracking, Austin Energy should focus on growing its renewable energy portofolio with more wind and solar and perhaps some geothermal energy.

Air pollution is much more than an environmental issue – it’s a public health issue.  That’s why you find medical professionals and health advocates supporting a transition to clean energy.

Sign up for one of Austin Energy’s stakeholder meetings and ask them to give up their plans for a giant new gas plant and to examine more options for retiring the Fayette coal plant in an affordable way.

5. Affordable Energy: Wind and solar energy are competitive with coal and natural gas already.  Meanwhile, electricity from coal plants is going to get more expensive because of various regulations to limit pollution.  Natural gas prices are low now, but have fluctuated greatly over time, making a big bet on natural gas risky.  When natural gas prices go up, Austin Energy raises our fuel charge to recover those costs.  Since affordable wind and solar are available now and can assure us a predictable price for 10-20 years, why would we not make those energy sources our priority?  Austin Energy has done a great job getting good wind contracts to keep customer rates low and is set to achieve its 35% renewable energy goal 4 years early in 2016.

Tell Austin Energy to keep up its momentum by expanding the renewable energy goal to 50% for 2020 and 60% by 2024.

Take Action:

Austin Energy is holding 3 stakeholder meetings to gather public input on the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan update to 2024.

  • Tuesday, February 25: 10 am – 12 pm (noon)
  • Tuesday, February 25: 6 pm – 8 pm
  • Thursday, February 27: 1 pm – 3 pm

This is your chance to help determine how the money you pay for your electric bills is invested by our publicly owned utility.

Please sign up to attend one of the meetings.

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Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced on Wednesday, February 19th, that his agency approved a multibillion dollar taxpayer-backed loan guarantee for the first nuclear reactors to be built in the U.S. in more than 30 years.  We view this as a costly act of desperation for a failing project.

An $8.3 billion loan guarantee was conditionally approved four years ago for two new reactors at Southern Company’s Vogtle plant in Waynesboro, Ga.  Since then, negotiations around the terms of the loan guarantee have been extended five times. Secretary Moniz’s announcement – that the government has finalized terms with two of three companies – accounts for just $6.5 billion of the loan. With approval for $1.8 billion of the loan still pending, the agency is clearly attempting to give momentum to the stalled project.

The construction of the two new reactors at the Vogtle plant are 21 months behind schedule and $1.6 billion over budget.  The original two units at Vogtle resulted in 1000% cost overruns from the original $1 billion dollar estimate as well as decades-long set-backs and construction delays.  This not only calls into question the decision to underwrite this risky project with taxpayer dollars, but proves that the same issues that plagued reactor construction more than three decades ago have not been resolved.

Nuclear energy continues to be beset with safety issues and produces toxic wastes that we still don’t have a solution for – hardly a technology the government should be promoting and propping up with taxpayer funds.

We berate wall street for their high-risk investments, yet the Department of Energy seems to have little to no risk aversion for these types of loan guarantees.  This is a bad deal for the American people who have been put on the hook for a project that is both embroiled in delays and cost overruns and to a company that has publicly stated that it does not need federal loans to complete the project.

This is a classic case of throwing good money after bad.

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Duke Energy said on Monday afternoon that between 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water were released from a pond at its retired coal fired power plant in Eden, NC, and spilled into the Dan River.

2014-02-04 Re-enforcing and patching the berm to the ash basin at the Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C.Joseph Rodriquez - News & Record

Re-enforcing and patching the berm to the ash basin at the Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C.
Photo by Joseph Rodriquez, News & Record

Duke said a 48-inch stormwater pipe beneath the unlined 27-acre ash pond broke Sunday afternoon, and tens of thousands of tons of coal ash and water drained into the pipe before spilling into the Dan River. Duke Energy says that the dam along the river remains secure and has not been affected.

Duke did not issue a press release to inform the public until Monday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the spill occurred.  Duke said it notified local emergency managers and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Sunday afternoon. Duke says the leak has been temporarily stopped and they are working on a permanent solution. Duke has 14 coal fired power plants in the state, seven of which have been retired.

The closest community downstream from the spill is Danville, VA, which takes its water from the Dan River only six miles from the pond. Officials are saying that water samples confirm that the water leaving the city’s treatment facility meets public health standards.

“All water leaving our treatment facility has met public health standards,” said Barry Dunkley, division director of water and wastewater treatment for Danville Utilities. “We do not anticipate any problems going forward in treating the water we draw from the Dan River.”

Coal ash, the toxic waste material left after coal is burned, contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and more than a dozen other heavy metals. Studies from the EPA have found that people living within one mile of unlined coal ash ponds can have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer.

This coal ash spill is the third-largest in U.S. history. In 2008, more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilled at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal plant in Tennessee.

The Dan River coal ash spill is the latest in a string of industrial accidents that have jeopardized the environment and health of citizens downstream.

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Between legislative sessions, the Texas Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House of Representatives appoint Interim Committees to study important issues that help guide the Texas Legislature’s decisions in the future. These interim committees hold hearings and take public testimony. Their findings will affect actions taken during the next regular session.  Public Citizen will be closely following several interim charges during the coming year.  After each charge, we have included a brief explanation about why we consider these important charges about which you should be concerned.  The interim charges include, but are not limited to:

House Committee on Environmental Regulation Interim Charges
# 1.  Study the environmental permitting processes at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), specifically the contested case hearing process at the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) and the timelines associated with the process. Study the economic impact that the state’s permitting processes have on Texas manufacturing sectors and how neighboring states’ and the federal permitting processes and timelines compare to those in Texas.
(Why are contested case hearings important for Texas citizens?  This is the only opportunity that neighbors of proposed facilities have to contest an air or water quality permit before a license is approved.  Once approved, any contentions must go through the Texas court system, which can cost a citizen or group of citizens thousands of dollars to litigate and the likelihood of getting a license revoked is extremely minimal.  You will note that the only concerns voice about this process has to do with economic impact and the impact on industry – NOT on how it would impact you and your family if you ended up with a facility next door that had to be permitted because it impacts on air and water quality.) 
# 2.  Study the rules, laws, and regulations pertaining to the disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas and determine the potential economic impact of permitting a facility in Texas. Make specific recommendations on the state and federal actions necessary to permit a high-level radioactive waste disposal or interim storage facility in Texas
(Can you say Yucca Mountain?  Yucca Mountain, a ridge of volcanic rock about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been the leading candidate site for a high-level radioactive repository since the 1980s, but Nevada has fought the project bitterly in court and in Congress. The spent fuel that emerges from nuclear power plants has been accumulating for decades in steel-lined pools or giant steel-and-concrete casks near the reactors.  A final decision to abandon the repository would leave the nation with no solution to a problem it has struggled with for half a century, but some in Texas seem determined to take on the task of making west Texas the new home for this nuclear waste.  While you may not be concerned about all that radioactivity sitting on land near Big Spring, TX, halfway between Midland and Sweetwater, you may want to consider the impact of all that waste being transported across the state on our highways, possibly through your neighborhood.  We will be following this charge and will post when we know about hearings.)

Consider this story that broke as I was writing this post. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground radioactive waste disposal site that began operations in 1999 and is the nation’s first repository for the permanent disposal of defense-generated transuranic radioactive waste left from research and production of nuclear weapons, was evacuated this morning when an underground salt truck used to haul mining debris caught fire.  Two WIPP rescue teams were activated and an unconfirmed number of WIPP employees were transported to a hospital for potential smoke inhalation. Operations at WIPP have been suspended until further notice.  According to WIPP, none of the nuclear waste was disrupted during the incident, but emergency crews were still battling the fire at this writing.

House Committee on State Affairs Interim Charge

# 3. Study the different financial assurance options used by state agencies to ensure compliance with environmental clean-up or remediation costs. Determine whether the methods utilized by state agencies are appropriate to ensure sufficient funds will be available when called upon.
(An example of how this can affect you – Currently, mines associated with a coal-fired plant can disposed of toxic coal ash waste from the burning of that coal in the depleted mines – click here to read more about coal ash waste .  Federal law requires those facility to post a bond for cleanup and remediation of the land where coal ash waste is disposed of.  In Texas, we allow a financially solvent company to pledge existing assets against future reclamation claims related to mine operations and seem to have no recourse to require changes if the company no longer meets financial health benchmarks. This is a practice that leaves Texas tax payers at risk of having to bail failing companies out from this obligation if those companies are unable to meet it.)

Click here to see all the Texas House Interim Charges.  We will keep you updated as hearings for these charges are announced.  Your input can have significant impact on what our legislature does regarding these issues.

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The Green Sanctuary Committee is hosting a free screening of Robert Redford’s film, WATERSHED, in Austin, TX

Robert RedfordWATERSHED tells the story of the threats to the once-mighty Colorado River and offers solutions for the future of the American west.

JANUARY 31st  at  7 PM
First Unitarian Church
4700 Grover Ave. ,  Austin, TX     
free – all welcome

 

The film panelists: 

  • Tom Mason, formerly with Lower Colorado River now advisor for Environmental Defense Fund.
  • Jennifer Walker, Sierra Club Water Resources Coordinator
  • Paul Robbins, Water activist and publisher of Austin Environmental Directory.

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Neighbors for Neighbors (NFN), an organization of residents near Luminant Mining’s Three Oaks Mine, filed late Monday for a contested case hearing on an EFH subsidiary’s request to renew the mining operation in Lee and Bastrop counties.

In its filing, NFN asks the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that administers mining law in Texas, to require Luminant Mining to post cash or an outside bond to cover the estimated  $60 million cost of cleaning up the strip mine. The group points out since EFH, the parent company of Luminant Mining, is expected to file for bankruptcy by the end of this year, there may not be funds to cover the cost of cleanup.  Click here to see a copy of the filing.

“Does a company have to go bankrupt and walk away from its mines in order for regulators to step in?” asked NFN president Travis Brown. “It would be the height of irresponsibility for Texas to allow a company going bankrupt to say, ‘Trust us, we’re good for it.’ We want Luminant Mining to post real bonds to assure that the mining restoration gets done.”

Russel Bostic, a local rancher and NFN member, said “I live next to the mine, and the company has condemned and is planning to use my land. My family wants our land to be restored to its original condition so we can return.”

Lignite coal mined at Three Oaks is used to supply Luminant’s two coal-fired power plants near Rockdale.

Under federal and state law, mining companies are required to restore mined areas to their original condition.  Those companies must also set aside money so resources will be available for the restoration, even if the company abandons the mine.  The law was created because many U.S. mines were abandoned when companies went bankrupt, leading to contamination of surface water and groundwater.

In Texas, Luminant Mining is responsible for the operation and cleanup of eleven active strip mines. If EFH goes bankrupt and sufficient cash has not been set aside for cleanup, taxpayers could end up with the estimated $1.01 billion cost of cleaning up all the mines.

Instead of requiring that $1.01 billion be set aside in cash or a real bond, the Railroad Commission allowed Luminant to “self-bond,” which means the company is relying on a “guarantee” that their own assets will cover the bonds without having real cash bonds set aside that the state can readily access.  In recent years, EFH has shifted to third party guarantee of the bonds, but the third party is another subsidiary of EFH, so still them.

In its current request for a mining permit for Three Oaks, Luminant Mining is again asking to post a self-bond for cleanup.

Brown said, “The company recently said in a community meeting at the mine that they intend to pledge assets for the cleanup bond. They said they need to operate the mines and coal plants to generate revenues to pay the new debt.  But nowhere in their most recent 8K [financial statement to SEC] do they make that commitment.”

Brown added, “This is especially disturbing since the company also says – in the same 8K – that they expect the price of gas to go up and coal to stay low. That’s the same poor business plan that has led to this bankruptcy.”

Michele Gangnes, an NFN member and a bond attorney, said “The law is clear, and Texas regulators should take immediate action to demand a cash bond so taxpayers and the environment are protected.”

Gangnes added, “In many states, Luminant Mining would be required to put up a cash bond before allowing the Tree oaks mine to expand. But EFH has been playing a shell-game, and state regulators have allowed it. We are asking the Railroad Commission to guarantee that EFH has to set cash aside or post a third-party bond specifically for cleanup of the mines in this bankruptcy deal.”

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If you have old medicine taking up your cabinet space, mark Saturday on you calendar for the City of Austin’s  “drug take-back day” where residents can anonymously drop off any prescription drugs they want to throw away.

Representatives from Austin Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency will be at several different locations around Austin, collecting and disposing unwanted prescription medicines, no questions asked.

Saturday’s marks the seventh semi-annual “drug take-back day” in Austin and Central Texas. The event is part of a larger effort to help “clean up” the city by making sure prescription drugs are properly and safely disposed keeping them out of our waterways and landfills.

If your community doesn’t have such a program, you may want to ask your local government to consider holding such an event.

Austin Drug Take-Back

Saturday, Oct. 26, 10 am-2pm

  • Northeast: Cornerstone Church, 1101 Reinli St.
  • Southeast: City of Austin Household Hazardous Waste Facility, 2514 Business Center Drive.
  • Barton Creek Square Mall, 2901 S. Capital of Texas Highway.
  • South: Austin Vet Center, 2015 South IH-35.
  • Northwest: Travis County Transportation Commissioner Center, 8656 SH 71 in West Oak Hill.

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Instead of taking action to clean Texas air, as requested by the Dallas County Medical Society, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Chairman Bryan Shaw and Commissioner Toby Baker voted today to deny the petition for rulemaking and further postpone needed air quality improvements for East Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth areas.

The DFW area has struggled with unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone pollution – caused emissions from vehicles and power plants mixing in the sunlight – for decades.  While improvements in air quality have been made, they have lagged behind tightening air quality standards set by EPA to protect public health.  Asthma rates – particularly among children – have continued to rise, as well as hospitalizations due to asthma.

Martin_Lake

In addition to contributing to ozone problems in East Texas & the DFW area, Luminant’s Martin Lake coal plant emits more toxic mercury than any other power plant in the nation, ranks 5th in carbon dioxide emissions & is responsible for $328,565,000 in health impacts from fine particle emissions.

Meanwhile, Luminant continues to operate three coal-fired power plants with a total of eight generating units in East Texas that were build in the 1970’s.  These outdated facilities emit nitrogen oxides (NOx) – which is one of the two ingredients in ozone creation – at twice the rate of new coal plants in Texas.  The rule changes recommended by the Dallas County Medical Society would have required those old coal plants to meet the same standards as new coal plants by 2018 – giving the plant owners more than ample time to make the upgrades or arrange to retire the facilities.

Instead of focusing on whether or not reducing NOx emissions from those old coal plants in East Texas would lead to reductions in ground-level ozone in the DFW area, the Commissioners persisted in questioning the science that shows that exposure to ground-level ozone results in increased and worsened incidents of asthma.  Never mind that the research has been vetted by the EPA and reaffirmed by health organizations including the American Lung Association.  The mindset at TCEQ, as at many of our agencies and with far too many of our elected officials, is that Texas knows best and industry must be protected at all costs.

We appreciate the more than 1,400 Public Citizen supporters who signed our petition in support of reducing emissions and protecting public health.  All of those comments were submitted into the record and I read a few of them allowed at today’s hearing.

We will continue to fight for healthy air as TCEQ moves forward with developing a updated State Implementation Plan (SIP) to bring the DFW area into attainment with ground-level ozone air quality standards.  That process will be ongoing in 2014, so stay tuned.

 

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The public will soon get a chance to present ideas and feedback to EPA officials on the agency’s plan to require existing power plants to cut their carbon emissions.

The agency will hold a series of 11 public events around the country over the next two months, the agency announced today.

The EPA plans to set guidelines that will allow states to design programs to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, which account for a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, the agency said in a statement. Those proposals are scheduled to be released in June 2014.

“Before proposing guidelines, EPA must consider how power plants with a variety of different configurations would be able to reduce carbon pollution in a cost-effective way,” the agency said.

The public hearings will be:
(more…)

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Double Standards in Texas Water Law

Under Texas Water Code, there is a double standard between groundwater and surface water. Groundwater is generally the property of the landowner as long as it is on private property, while surface water is property of the state.

The Water Code Section 35.002 defines groundwater as “water percolating below the surface of the earth.” But it does not clearly define “percolating.” Other forms of groundwater sources include “underground rivers” (aka subterranean streams) and “underflow,” both of which are excluded from the definition of groundwater in Section 52.001 of the Water Code. Section 35.003 states, “Surface water laws are not applicable. The laws and administrative rules relating to the use of surface water do not apply to groundwater.”

Andrew Sansom, Director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University, has emphasized that we are currently given permission by the state to withdraw more water from our rivers and lakes than the amount that is actually in them. And as surface water levels decline in the midst of the drought, Texas becomes more dependent upon groundwater sources. Again it sheds light on the double standard, as the state treats surface and groundwater as two completely different substances. Much of it is rooted in the water rights system. This starts with the “rule of capture,” which allows individual landowners to pump as much water as they wish from the underlying aquifer, without liability for injury to an adjacent landowner caused by excessive pumping.

Rule of captureWater use is a zero-sum game; one landowner benefits at the other’s detriment. Since the Water Code’s definition of groundwater only stipulates “percolation,” it essentially says that if you pump it, you own it. Texas courts presume that that all groundwater is “percolating” and property of the landowner until it is conclusively shown to be a subterranean river or underflow.  This was settled by the Texas Supreme Court case Houston & T.C. Ry v. East in 1904.

The rule of capture also sheds light on the political imbalance between private property rights and the public interest of protecting groundwater as a natural resource and public utility. If groundwater were universally owned by the state, just as surface water is, any state intervention onto landowner property regarding groundwater use should not be viewed as an intrusion of private property rights.

A similar principle applies to private land in regards to wildlife. A game warden or any Texas Parks & Wildlife official does not need a search warrant from a judge to search one’s land; this is because the wildlife is property of the state agency, which also issues hunting and fishing licenses, sets the dates for hunting seasons, and cracks down on poaching.Groundwater district officials could follow the same guidelines as TPWD officials; groundwater is to them as wildlife is to TPWD. One is not entitled to kill as many deer as he wishes in the name of private property rights; the same principle should be applied to pumping groundwater on private property.

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In the midst of the 2013 Texas drought, many towns and communities have suffered disastrous blows, either completely running out of water or coming close enough to warrent desperate measures. Some of have made significant headlines, including Spicewood Beach, Barnhart and Brownwood.

According to TCEQ, 665 water systems have implemented mandatory restrictions. 10 have been placed in a state of emergency in the last year, which means they could run out of water within 45 days or less.

Spicewood Beach drought

Spicewood Beach, TX

Spicewood Beach was the first Texas town to run out of water in early 2012, when low lake levels resulted in the well failure, and the community is still waiting for a solution. Since last year, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has been trucking in about 32,500 gallons of water per day and an additional 6,500 gallons on weekends to serve the town’s more than 7,500 residents. The community is under stage 4 water restrictions, meaning residents cannot perform any outdoor watering; water is only for essential uses. The LCRA Board unanimously approved construction of a $1.2 million water treatment plant, which will be built by the Vancouver based private company Corix Utilities. The LCRA had hoped they could end stage 4 restrictions by completing the plant by the end of the summer, but Corix does not expect to finish construction until November. The company’s Texas-based operations manager Darrin Barker stated that obtaining permits from the necessary agencies like TCEQ, LCRA, and US Army Corp of Engineers will add up to three months to the process.

The West Texas community of Barnhart, about 50 miles west of San Angelo, suffered a disastrous fate on June 4 when they officially ran out of water. The town’s sole public well source stayed dry for nearly 3 days. Residents point to the local economy’s reliance on oil and gas drilling as a contributing factor to the problem. “This is Texas industry. This [oil and gas] is what makes Texas money, and yes, we have to have it, but not at this expense,” said Barnhart resident Glenda Kuykendall. On June 6, TCEQ released a statement, saying that “the water system issued a boil water notice as a precautionary measure due to the low water pressure.” However, as of June 18, the agency has only listed Barnhart in stage 3 and as an area of “concern,” meaning they could run out of water in 180 days or less. Barnhart has only 112 residents, which could mean that the potential well capacity exceeds the consumer demand, giving them a higher window of time before a potential outage threat after mitigating the problem.

Brownwood’s primary water source, Lake Brownwood, dropped 17 feet during the 2011 drought and came close to running out of water. The drought still lingers here, a major concern for Brown County Water Improvement District General Manager Dennis Spinks. The District hopes to drill and tap two aquifers 3,000 feet down, but if they fail, the backup plan is to turn treated sewage into drinking water, sending it directly back into the city pipes and eliminating the lake as the middle man. The city obtained a permit from TCEQ and funding from the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) that would allow such a strategy. Brownwood has approximately 20,000 residents and is currently under stage 3 watering restrictions. However, the Water District board members have debated entering stage 4 and are closely monitoring lake levels to determine whether or not it will be necessary.

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In the midst of Texas’ worst drought since the 1950s “drought of record,” we face serious issues regarding water consumption and waste, water rights, and how conservation efforts can be integrated into public policy. Texas’ population is projected to double by 2060. So how can we sustainably plan to serve the water needs of an estimated 52 million people by then? Water conservation, management strategies, and planning were the top environmental issues put on the table during the 83rd Texas Legislative Session.

Several water conservation bills were passed into law this session. HB 4, introduced by Rep. Allan Ritter (R-Nederland), marked the most significant and impactful among those he signed. The bill allocates $2 billion toward a new State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) from the state’s “Rainy Day Fund,” pending voter approval in the November 5th election. If approved, SWIFT will be used to fund water-related projects, infrastructure, and conservation projects with loans. The bill requires that 20% of funding go toward conservation and re-use, with another 10% toward agricultural water projects.

Faucet dripping Earth dropThree bills passed that will address the problem of wasted water. HB 857, by Rep. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), requires water utilities to conduct annual water loss audits. HB 1461, from Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), requires customer notification of audit results. Rep. Lon Burnam’s (D-Fort Worth) HB 3605 requires utilities to use a portion of state financial assistance funds to repair municipal water main leaks, which would save an estimated 20 billion gallons annually.

Austin’s Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson got his SB 198 signed into law as well. It makes it illegal for homeowners associations to prohibit members from utilizing xeriscaping and drought-resistant landscaping. Watson noted that residential lawns are commonly made up of St. Augustine and Kentucky bluegrass, both of which require extensive watering. This is a significant problem in arid regions like west Texas. It takes much less water to grow native plants like yuccas, creosote, and Texas sagebrush, all of which are favorable for lawn aesthetics. An increase in drought-tolerant plants as opposed to traditional lawn grasses could save 14 billion gallons of water by 2020.

Other water-related bills signed into law include SB 385, 654, 700, and 1870. SB 385 created the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which authorizes collaboration amongst municipalities, counties, commercial lenders, and landowners to develop improvement projects that will reduce water and energy consumption. SB 654 gives municipalities the power to enforce water ordinances through civil action instead of filing criminal lawsuits. SB 700 requires that the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) draft a template for state agencies to use in developing comprehensive water management and conservation plans, which they must annually update. It also requires SECO to biennially submit a progress report to the Governor and publish it on their website. Finally, SB 1870 created the West Fort Bend Water Authority and outlined its powers.

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