City’s smog concerns may choke power plant

Anybody catch this article last week in the Houston Chronicle? An important issue to think about: how coal plants will not only affect the surrounding air quality, but that of communities down wind. If the White Stallion coal plant is allowed to be built: Houston, we will have an even worse smog problem. Look for Ryan’s quote to close it out!

City’s smog concerns may choke power plant

Pollution near Matagorda could drift to Houston



A proposed coal-fired power plant in mostly rural Matagorda County, 90 miles from the traffic-choked freeways and smokestacks of Houston, has moved to the center of the debate over the big city’s air.

Some federal regulators, Houston lawmakers, and environmentalists say the proposed White Stallion Energy Center would only exacerbate the city’s stubborn smog problem as tougher nationwide limits for the widespread pollutant come into play.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for one, wants Texas regulators to prove that pollution from the coal plant would not make Houston’s smog worse before issuing permits. Critics also want the state to require the power company to consider new technology that might slash emissions of smog-forming pollution.

The push comes amid a review of the proposal by the State Office of Administrative Hearings, which will soon recommend whether the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality should grant the plant’s air permit.

The plant would be built less than 20 miles from the boundary of the eight-county Houston region that was long in violation of federal limits for smog or ozone. Rules on industrial pollution — in particular, new sources — are tighter inside such areas than outside, even though smog ignores county lines.

The TCEQ has declined to study the smog issue further, saying it would be too costly, take up to a year to complete and still not provide enough information to address the EPA’s concerns.

The state agency declined to comment further because the issue is before the hearing office.

Local concerns

Texas regulators, not the EPA, decide whether to grant power plant permits. But the federal agency can intervene if it finds a problem.

In Matagorda County itself, there is a push-pull between environmental protection and jobs. Some rice farmers also have raised concerns about how much water the proposed plant will use.

In Houston, meanwhile, state Reps. Jessica Farrar, Ana Hernandez and Kristi Thibaut, all Democrats, asked the EPA last week to block the coal plant’s permits until the TCEQ studies emissions that would drift toward Houston and requires stricter pollution controls than proposed.

“Our concern is public health,” Hernandez said. “I think the impact on Harris County should be fully accessed before any permits are issued.”

Houston, once the nation’s smog capital, met the federal ozone limit for the first time last year. But the region will need to make deeper cuts, because the EPA has proposed a stricter smog standard.

The allowable smog level will be between 60 and 70 parts ozone per billion parts air, down from the 84 parts per billion, set in 1997, that Houston met last year.

The EPA says the tighter standard reflects research showing that smog poses greater health risks than previously thought. Ozone is the main ingredient in smog, and chronic exposure can trigger asthma attacks, chest pains and premature death.

Smog is created when a mixture of chemicals emitted mostly by vehicles, industrial plants and refineries reacts with sunlight.

Not the cleanest

If built, the White Stallion plant would be capable of generating 1,320 megawatts, enough to power about 650,000 homes.

The company proposing it, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, says on its Web site the plant’s circulating fluidized bed technology enables it to burn coal and petroleum coke cleanly, meeting rigid environmental standards. The technology burns coal at lower temperatures and uses limestone to capture many emissions that older plants don’t.

Other proposed coal plants in Texas, however, would emit smog-forming pollution at a lower rate than the White Stallion facility, which would pump more than 4,000 tons of nitrogen oxides into the air each year — as much as 4.8 million cars — and increase Houston’s ozone level by 2 parts per billion, according to environmental groups.

“It’s a significant problem, especially since the EPA is tightening the standard” for smog, said Ryan Rittenhouse, a Texas-based analyst with the advocacy group Public Citizen. “It makes no sense to permit this coal plant on Houston’s doorstep.”


By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.