Posts Tagged ‘air pollution’

*Note: this is a blog post by Miao Zhang, a junior at Rice University majoring in Mathematical Economic Analysis and Visual Arts. Ms. Zhang recently completed a Fall semester internship with Public Citizen.

Metal recycling sounds environmentally friendly, right? Did you know, however, that these recyclers can actually be a source of air pollution?

When did regulators find out about this?

The discovery that metal recycling can create significant pollution was publicized in Houston in late 2012. There were over 180 complaints of colored smoke and trouble breathing between 2008 and 2013. These complaints finally led Houston air authorities to discover this new source of air pollution. There were barely any regulations on the emission levels of metal recyclers since metal recycling is a business assumed to have low emissions.

Where does the air pollution come from?

Metal compounds may be released into the air when metal welding and cutting is taking place. Some of these chemicals are potentially cancer-causing.

In a study by the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, metal particulate matter including iron, manganese, copper, chromium, nickel, lead, cobalt, cadmium and mercury was detected in the ambient air near the five metal recyclers sampled. The concentration of these particulate matters poses carcinogenic risks to the communities nearby. The increased cancer risk is estimated to range from 1 in 1,000,000 to 8 in 10,000.

There are currently over 150 metal recycling facilities in the City of Houston. Most of them are in already underserved communities. With no buffer zone restrictions distancing these facilities from residential areas, many of them are right next door to people’s homes.

With Houston being prone to flooding, especially in certain communities, Houstonians also run the risk of having such pollutants reach further and even seep into the groundwater.  

What should we do?

Recycling is certainly a good thing, but it’s easy to be misguided by the positive connotation of the word. As eco-friendly as recycling sounds, the process still inevitably takes up energy and resources and produces waste. Procedures that make good on one end may cause damage to another. Take almond milk for example. Even though the production of almond milk doesn’t involve cows and thus reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the process requires much more water than regular milk or other milk alternatives.

Just because something is for a good cause shouldn’t excuse it from the same level of regulation as other industry. Specific and strict limits should be placed on the different kinds of pollutants that metal recyclers release. Neighboring communities should also be informed of the potential risks of living within close radius to these facilities. In the city of Houston, there is barely any required buffer zones for how close a metal recycler can be to homes. With many metal recyclers operating right by residential areas, the communities must be informed on the matter.

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As if the relentless heat wasn’t enough this summer, Austin is experiencing hazy skies due to an African dust cloud originating in the Saharan desert. The dust was most noticeable on Sunday, July 1. The technical term for this dust is “fine particulate matter,” particles that are so small they can travel from our lungs into our blood stream, causing health problems. An individual particle is 1/20th the width of a human hair. 

The Clean Air Act establishes standards for fine particulate matter (also known as “PM2.5” because it is 2.5 microns in diameter) in the air we breathe. PM2.5 is measured in micrograms per meter cubed, a measurement of how much material is found in a given volume of air. The Environmental Protection Agency has established limits of PM2.5 at 35 μg/m³ in a 24 hour period and 12 μg/m³ in an annual average. If an air monitor exceeds that level of PM2.5, then the region it monitors risks being designated in “nonattainment” of the federal standard. There are currently no areas in Texas in nonattainment of the PM2.5 standard, though there are several areas in nonattainment of the ozone pollution standard.

Unfortunately, the Austin area got very close to violating the PM2.5 standard on Sunday. The table below lists hourly monitor values at the Zavala air monitor in Austin (you can see a map of all the air monitors in Texas here). As you can see, the 24-hour average of monitor values at Zavala on July 1 was 32.5 μg/m³, very close to the EPA’s standard of 35 μg/m³.

Data available from TCEQ

This does not mean, though, that Austin risks falling out of attainment of the fine particulate matter standard. There are a few reasons for this. First, measuring compliance with the standard is a complex calculation that involves averaging three years of air monitoring data. Second–and more importantly for air quality this week–African dust is considered an “exceptional event” that would be excluded from the data anyway.

An exceptional event is an air pollution event that is excluded from the data because it meets certain criteria. The EPA establishes the criteria for an air pollution event to be considered exceptional. These criteria include that “the event is associated with a measured concentration in excess of normal historical fluctuations, including background.” 40 CFR § 50.14(c)(3)(iv) (emphasis added).

African dust has been reaching Texas since time immemorial, and the impact of these events on air quality in Texas is absolutely part of the normal historical fluctuations of weather and air quality. In fact, the phenomenon was first identified by a noted historical figure, Charles Darwin, during his famous trip aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in 1833.

You might think that the considerable historical record on African dust events would cause EPA to reject their exclusion from the data on the basis that they are, after all, well within “normal historical fluctuations.” You would be wrong. The truth is that Texas has a long history of claiming exceptional events that include African dust storms. Other typical exceptional events in Texas include agricultural fires in Mexico (as old as agriculture) and ozone pollution blowing in from other countries (also Mexico, also old).

Why does this matter? Most importantly, air pollution is linked to public health. Children, the elderly, and people with respiratory ailments such as asthma and COPD are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. We have to keep our air clean to keep ourselves healthy. But nonattainment designations have consequences for a region that can last for decades and cost billions of dollars. Houston and Dallas, for example, have been trying to get into attainment of the ozone standard for decade. It’s why we have emissions tests for our cars, and why we can’t build a new factory without reducing pollution from an existing one. The consequences are so great precisely because the impact on human health is so serious. Asthma is the number one cause of school absences. Globally 7 million people die each year from air pollution.

So the purpose of a nonattainment designation is to make our air healthier and protect ourselves and our children. Unfortunately, in Texas, the focus is on avoiding nonattainment designations and their consequences to big business. Several times in the last few years, Texas has used the exceptional events rule to keep areas artificially in attainment of air pollution standards. In 2013, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality plainly stated that it was excluding enough exceptional events from Houston’s data to keep the area from being desingated under the fine particulate matter standard. Several air quality advocates (including myself) objected to this move. We even pointed to Charles Darwin’s observations as evidence that Texas could not exclude African dust events from its data.

Our objections were ignored by Texas and EPA. The result today is that thousands of people are breathing air that does not meet federal pollution standards. Their health will suffer as a result. Some people will even die. There are quantifiable consequences to these decisions, and they are measured in human lives.

Since the 2013 move to avoid designating Houston as not meeting the PM2.5 standard, several other exception event exclusions have kept areas of Texas artificially in attainment of pollution standards. El Paso doesn’t meet the ozone standard, but exceptional events blamed on Mexico in 2015 have helped the area to avoid a nonattainment designation. More recently, the failure to designate San Antonio as not meeting the ozone pollution standard was blamed on ozone transport from other regions.

In some cases, Texas is using the law correctly to exclude exceptional events. (Houston’s lack of a PM2.5 designation is not one of these cases. We still maintain that it was done improperly and in violation of the exceptional events rule and the spirit of the Clean Air Act.) But even if the state is legally correct in its maneuvers, it’s doing so at the cost of human health. When the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality relies on tricks of data manipulation to avoid federal scrutiny, it is prioritizing business interests over people. A nonattainment designation has consequences for business and industry: old plants have to clean up, new plants have to invest in clean tech. These consequences do reach into the billions of dollars. The total cost of compliance with the Clean Air Act in 2020 is estimated to be $65 billion. But the health benefits of cleaner air in 2020 is estimated at $2 trillion. That’s a return on investment of more than 30 to 1.

Notably, more and more of our air pollution is coming from vehicles. When you register your vehicle, you pay a fee that is used in part to reduce vehicle pollution. When you get your car inspected and make any improvements needed to meet emissions standards, you are investing in clean air. Texas makes sure that you pay your fair share of the cost of reducing air pollution, and you should be happy to do so. After all, it is an investment in your health and your children’s future.

So why does Texas keeping fighting against Clean Air Act regulation? It’s a question of priorities. Much of the cost of compliance is born by industry, especially the oil and gas industry. That’s a powerful lobby in Texas, far more powerful than children who can’t go to school because of chronic asthma attacks. Texas is willing to skirt some regulations in order to save money for industry. It isn’t willing to invest in environmental improvements that pay huge dividends to its people in the long term.

Industry profits today, or public health tomorrow. Texas has made its choice. What’s yours?

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This week marks the six month anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, a catastrophic storm that killed 88 people and caused about $125 billion in damages. Scientists have shown that Harvey’s strength was fueled in part by climate change.

Houston Mayor Turner has voiced concerns about climate change and pollution, recently through an op-ed published in the Huffington Post entitled “Cities Must Get Creative In The Fight Against Air Pollution.” In this piece, Turner says that cities must address the poor air quality that too often disproportionately impacts low-income communities. Specifically, he states that he will protest permits for new concrete batch plants. Turner also plans to address climate change through using renewable energy to power city operations and through electric vehicle adoption.

Yet, the city of Houston can do more. The Houston Climate Movement came together last year before Harvey because we know that Houston is at risk for the impacts of climate change. The Houston Climate Movement advocates for a community-wide climate action and adaptation plan.

In response to Turner’s op-ed, we penned this letter to him:


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UPDATE: Happening now in Houston, until 8pm CT.  Go on Facebook to TEJAS’s page to watch.


Date:           Thursday, 11/17/2016
Location:  Hartman Community Center, 9311 East Ave. P. Houston, TX 77012
Time:          2:00 pm – 8:00 pm.

Join HPCC public health advocates at an EPA hearing about toxic air pollution from petroleum refineries!

(En español, mira aquí: http://airalliancehouston.org/wp-content/uploads/Spanish-EPA-Hearing-Flier.pdf)

The Environmental Protection Agency will hold a public hearing on the reconsideration of the Refinery Sector Rule for which EPA did not provide adequate opportunity for notice and comment. This rulemaking is the result of a lawsuit filed by Air Alliance Houston, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Community In-Power and Development Association, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, who are collectively represented by Earthjustice.

This is is our only chance to tell EPA we are concerned about pollution from oil refineries and its impact on our health. This is the only public hearing EPA will hold anywhere in the country, and public comment will be taken for six hours, from 2-8 pm. We’d like EPA to hear from us and our allies in refinery communities throughout the entire hearing, so please sign up to speak today.

Join us in telling EPA:

  • Our health suffers from pollution from oil refineries.
  • Our children are particularly at risk from the health effects of air pollution.
  • Air pollution affects our lives where we live, work, and play.

Together we can demand a stronger rule to protect communities from air pollution. The refining industry must cut pollution by:

  • Reducing emissions from flares and pressure relief devices.
  • Eliminate pollution exemptions for malfunction and force majeure events.
  • Require fenceline monitoring at all times.

Air Alliance Houston will have fact sheets and talking points available at the hearing.
If you would like to present oral testimony at the hearing, please complete this form or notify Ms. Virginia Hunt no later than November 15, 2016, by email: [email protected] (preferred); or by telephone: (919) 541-0832.
Space will also be available that day if time slots are not all filled, on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Basic background on key issues from EPA:
Sign the Earthjustice petition: http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2016/community-and-environmental-groups-sue-the-epa-and-call-on-the-agency-to-remove-free-pass-to-pollute-from

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Photo by Maciek Jasik

Photo by Maciek Jasik

The air we breathe is no longer safe. It is it filled with millions of tiny particles of toxic pollution about 36 times smaller than a grain of sand that may cause or accelerate degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Particle pollution’s role in lung disease is well known and backed by years of scientific research; but, recent research correlating pollution and brain trauma has resulted in compelling evidence of its negative role on the brain, despite the research being in its preliminary stages.

Particle pollution contains toxic combinations of sulfate, nitrate and ammonium ions, hydrocarbons and heavy metals – all that reek havoc on the brain’s immune system. But only the fine and ultra-fine particles can reach the brain as natural defenses of sneezing, coughing or running noses eject larger particles. The remaining particles can embed themselves in the lungs to foster infection and cancer or may infiltrate the bloodstream and create dangerous byproducts that can travel throughout the body.

The particles can take a more dangerous lesser know path: they can travel through the olfactory nerves directly to brain. Once there their toxic metals or compounds corrupt the microglia, which are the brain’s special immune cells. The particle pollution causes chronic inflammation which leaves microglia unable to remove waste from the brain or to overproduce chemicals meant to kill unwanted bacteria. Chronic inflammation puts the immune system on over-drive, which has harmful long-term effects and consistently is associated with neurological degeneration. Doctors even use early breakdowns in the olfactory system – through which all of these harmful processes occur – as an indicator of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, further reinforcing the correlation of pollution to degenerative brain diseases.

This information is unsettling as pollution levels rise every year. About 15% of Americans are exposed for extended periods of time to levels of particle pollution about the Environmental Protection Agency standards with another 14% exposed to similar levels on bad air days. This air pollution in the United States affects mostly those who live in undesirable areas such as next to high traffic roads and overcrowded urban areas which happens to be the poor, the elderly and people of color which means the people who can lease afford medical costs, breathe in the most unhealthy air.

Even worse, some cities in China and India face air pollution levels 3-6 times higher than World Health Organization standards. Research from the environmental journal Health and Technology estimates that cleaning up the world’s air could save about 2 million deaths globally. But so many people are already reaping the negative effects of pollution on our brains. 50 million people worldwide are living with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s with 6 million of those in the United States. Right now the United States is about to experience the highest number of degenerative brain diseases as the Baby Boomers reach the age where these diseases emerge and since they were born before the Clean Air Act in 1970, their generation has been exposed to the most air pollution than any generation before or after them.

Research is still unclear on whether particle pollution sparks degenerative diseases or accelerates them; however, the research is clear that there is a relationship – one strong enough to be the most potential cause of brain disease.

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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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This summer, President Obama committed the U.S. to be a global leader on curbing climate disruption and proposed that we start by limiting carbon pollution from power plants. Currently, there are no limits on the amount of carbon pollution spewed into the air by power plants. It’s time to change that.

As they prepare to set carbon pollution standards for existing power plants, the EPA is holding a listening session on November 7 in Dallas for community members and stakeholders. This is your opportunity to let your voice be heard and to tell the EPA that our planet and our futures depend on strong, just action to address climate disruption.

RSVP today for the Dallas listening session to take action for climate protection!

Event details:

WHO: You, Public Citizen, Sierra Club, and climate activists
WHAT: EPA listening session on carbon limits
WHEN: November 7 from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
WHERE: 1st Floor Auditorium, J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, 1515 Young Street, Dallas, TX (map)
RSVP: Click here to RSVP

Questions: Contact Kaiba White at [email protected] or 512-637-9462.

We’ve known for decades that carbon wrecks our health and our climate, and power plants are the nation’s top source. Their pollution fuels climate disruption — it makes wildfires burn hotter and droughts last longer. Warm summer weekends become scorching heatwaves and floods become disasters. Unlimited carbon pollution means more smog, more asthma attacks, and more climate disruption.

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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.


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 Associated Press is reporting that the World Health Organization (WHO) is declaring – what many of us who spend our days in traffic choking on smog or who live near a power plant or other industrial facility have long suspected but now has finally been scientifically validated – air pollution causes lung cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization based in Lyon, France, declared  that air pollution is a carcinogen, alongside known dangers such as asbestos, tobacco and ultraviolet radiation. The decision came after a consultation by an expert panel organized by IARC declared air pollution an important environmental carcinogen, more so than passive smoking.

IARC had previously deemed some of the components in air pollution such as diesel fumes to be carcinogens, but this is the first time it has classified air pollution in its entirety as cancer causing.

The risk to the individual is low according to their statement, but main sources of pollution are widespread, including transportation, power plants, and industrial and agricultural emissions, and they are difficult for individuals to avoid.

WHO and the European Commission are reviewing their recommended limits on air pollution. Previously, pollution had been found to boost the chances of heart and respiratory diseases, but the recent analysis of more than 1,000 studies worldwide points to enough evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution is now considered to cause lung cancer and WHO will review their recommended limits on air pollution based on these new findings.

Click here to read the NBC news story on this new finding.

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According to an article in the New York Times, in recent decades people living in the south of China are living five years longer on average than their northern counterparts. The reasons are because of the pollution from the widespread use of coal in the north, according to a study released Monday by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a prominent American science journal.

The study was conducted by an American, an Israeli and two Chinese scholars and was based on analyses of health and pollution data collected by official Chinese sources from 1981 to 2001. Click here to read the full story in the New York Times.

At the same time, NBC News reports that two studies release on Tuesday shows air pollution can cause lung cancer and seems to worsen heart failure.

Both studies show the more pollution, the more disease. One study looked at lung cancer cases across Europe; the other looked at hospitalization for heart failure in several countries, including the United States.

Dr. Ole Raaschou-Nielsen of the Danish Cancer Society Research Center said they couldn’t find a “safe” level of air pollution. The more pollution, the higher the risk, even at legally accepted limits.

The second study looked at 12 countries, including the United States. Nicholas Mills of the University of Edinburgh in Britain and colleagues combined data from 35 studies that assessed carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone pollution, as well as particulate matter (often simply called soot) and looked at rates of being hospitalized for heart failure,.

About half of people with heart failure die within five years, according to the American Heart Association. This study found that one of the things that can throw heart failure patients into the hospital, or kill them, is breathing polluted air. Click here to read the NBC News story.

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Back in March, the Dallas Observer reported about the chance that Energy Future Holdings (EFH – formerly TXU) the state’s largest power generator, was verging on bankruptcy,  Our question then was – are Texas ratepayers going to have to pay for EHF’s bad bet?

Before and since then, there has been a lot of talk about how the EPA is threatening our ability to keep the lights on in Texas.  It was just last fall that Dallas based Luminant claimed that it would be taking 2 coal-fired generating units at the Monticello plant offline due to the cost of complying with newly proposed EPA regulations.

Now, with EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule off the table, Luminant is going to take the Monticello plant offline for the winter season anyway.  The reality of the energy market in Texas and across the U.S. is that coal isn’t the cheapest option anymore.

Now comes the Dallas Observer with a new article questioning EHF’s Luminant generation division’s claim that EPA regulations are going to be the cause of plant closures.

Brantley Hargrove writes:

Does Texas’ biggest electricity generator, Dallas-based Luminant, just have one hell of a poker face, or should we not read too much into Friday’s announcement that it will idle two units at its Monticello plant for six months? If you’ll recall, the company threatened to idle the units last summer, a time when record demand almost forced rolling blackouts. It claimed that an EPA rule designed to reduce the amount of harmful air pollution wafting across state lines was going to force the company to remove 1,200 megawatts from the grid, enough to power more than a million homes.

Texas politicos were quick to pile onto the agency’s “job-killing” regulations, which they said threatened the very integrity of the grid. “As expected, the only results of this rule will be putting Texans out of work and creating hardships for them and their families, while putting the reliability of Texas’ grid in jeopardy,” Gov. Rick Perry scolded from the presidential campaign trail.

“The rule will impose great costs on coal-fired power plants, causing some to shut down or curtail operations, threatening the state’s electrical capacity reserve margins needed to avoid power disruptions during times of peak demand,” Texas Commission on Environmental Quality director Bryan Shaw warned. “Such a scenario could lead to blackouts, which create serious health risks for Texans dependent on reliable energy.”

To hear them tell it, Texas was given a brief reprieve when a federal appeals court stayed the rule pending oral arguments. And when it tossed the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule altogether last month, the court’s decision was heralded as a decisive coup for Luminant and Texas electric reliability.

“EPA’s illegal micro-managing of state air-quality plans was so specific that immediately after the rule-making it was clear that coal-powered energy production at Texas-based plants operated by Luminant, a big utility, would have to be cut,” a Wall Street Journaleditorial opined. “Tuesday’s ruling means Luminant will be able to keep 1,300 megawatts of power online in Texas, which needs more electricity because unlike other parts of the U.S. in the Obama era it is growing.”

But no sooner had Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott crowed over his “defeat” of the “EPA overlords” than Luminant announced it would idle those two Monticello units anyway. Awkward. For between six or seven months, starting in December, they will sit dormant. Luminant spokesperson Allan Koenig blames low power prices. Monticello has been running below capacity as it is, he says. They’ll be back online in time for next summer’s heat wave. In the meantime, somehow, Luminant won’t lay anybody off.

What Koenig says about the power market is true: The price of electricity fell along with the price of natural gas back in 2008. Ever since then, their bottom line has gotten pinched, along with everyone else’s.

But Luminant is a special case, troubled by a unique predicament, causing some to wonder whether we can lay everything at the feet of the cruel market. The real problem came (as we examined in a March cover story, “Blackout Blues”) when private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts saddled the former TXU with tens of billions of dollars in debt. The bull electricity market KKR was betting on went bearish, and the newly reconstituted Energy Future Holdings’ already daunting mountain of debt became insurmountable. Analysts think the company’s preparing for an impending bankruptcy.

So, the coal-fired plants KKR expected Luminant to ride into profitability are now cheaper to shut down, particularly when seasonal electricity demand is low. That makes sense. It made sense, too, that as the generator navigated treacherous financial straits, costly pollution controls on aging, depreciating coal-fired units wouldn’t be the wisest investment. It’s one big expense they can’t currently afford. Nor can it afford to lose money by running a coal-fired plant.

It all causes one to wonder, though: Now that the threat of regulation has, albeit momentarily, passed, and the units it threatened to shut down because of clean air rules have gone dark anyway, what was the point of all that brinksmanship? Was Luminant playing a high-stakes game of chicken to ward off regulations by threatening to idle a plant it was going to idle regardless of the outcome? Luminant’s Koenig says the shut down is “in no way related” to last year’s regulatory standoff. “Federal regulation is very, very different from low power prices,” Koenig says. “We can’t control either, but we can respond to regulation and low power prices. The argument to me, it’s absolutely apples and oranges.”

Yet others in the industry say it’s all about the market. Always has been.

“These regulations will not kill coal,” John Rowe, until recently the leader of one of the country’s largest generators, told an audience at an American Enterprise Institute conference. “In fact, modeling done on the impacts of these rules shows that up to 50 percent of retirements are due to the current economics of the plant due to natural gas and coal prices.”

If fingers need to get pointed anywhere, point them in that direction, and at LBO architects that left the company all but incapable of navigating these choppy Texas waters.

We are wondering the same and believe market factors are impacting the coal industry more than the EPA and the current administration.

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The New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity has released a new reportThe Regulatory Red Herring: The Role of Job Impact Analysis in Environmental Policy Debates. The study finds that claims of jobs that stand to be gained or lost due to environmental regulations require much closer scrutiny than they’re given. Very often these claims are made dramatically out of context, based on economic analyses that may not have been meant to support them.

The report goes on to say there are ways that cost-benefit analysis can more accurately evaluate the effect of environmental regulation on layoffs and hiring. But frequently, the tendency is for jobs impact models to be used in ways that are not helpful in debates over environmental protections. Results are sometimes cited without calling adequate attention to their limitations and assumptions even though different modeling choices can lead to drastically different conclusions.

EPA’s recent regulations, which have come under attack for “killing jobs,” have all gone through economic analysis and have been vetted by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. For example, the Boiler MACT Rule is estimated to deliver between $22.2 billion and $54.5 billion in benefits per year, including the avoidance of thousands of premature deaths and cardiopulmonary illnesses annually (as well as significant, non-monetized ecosystem and mercury reduction benefits); by comparison, only about $1.9 billion in costs are expected.

Below is a table that shows the analysis for several EPA regulations.

Annual costs and benefits of sample EPA regs

In each instance, the benefits outweigh the costs.  Click here to get the full report.

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According to an MSNBC article, even short-term exposure to air pollution — just a day or a week in some cases — may kick off a heart attack or stroke according to two new studies.  The studies reveal that the risk of heart attack or stroke can jump after high-pollution days, especially for people who already have predisposing health problems.

In a new analysis published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, up to a week of exposure to most major types of air pollution may be enough to trigger a heart attack.

  • Heart attack risk went up by almost 5 percent with high carbon monoxide levels over as little as seven days
  • Heart attack risk increased almost 3 percent with higher levels of air particles for up to seven days.

The risk of stroke jumped 34 percent after 24 hours of exposure to moderate air pollution, according to a study published in the latest issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

No one knows exactly how much pollution will trigger a heart attack or stroke, but experts suggest that vulnerable people protect themselves by minimizing time spent breathing air contaminated with a heavy dose of fine particles.  As exposure increases, both in terms of time and intensity, so does the risk of a heart attack and stroke.

The best recourse for those with cardiovascular disease may be to keep a close eye on local pollution levels, experts say. And government agencies are making that easier and easier. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has a downloadable app that provides information on local air quality. You can download the air quality app from the AIRNow app from the EPA’s website. The app works on both Apple and Android phones and allows users to get pollutant and ozone levels for more than 400 cities across the nation.

The culprit in both studies is particulate matter, tiny bits of material and droplets, known as PM2.5s. The particles come from a variety of sources, including power plants, factories, trucks and cars.

If you live in an area that is in non-attainment for federal air quality standards such as DFW or Houston, this should cause you some concern as the Texas leadership does everything they can to block the EPA’s efforts to enforce the Clean Air Act.  While they express concern about EPA regulations on the financial health of the energy industry, touting the imaginary loss of jobs, they rarely express concerns about the actual health of Texans who would be protected by the increased regulation.

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The U.S. Senate killed Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Kentucky) effort last week to strike down the EPA’s Cross State Air Pollution Rule regulating emissions that blow across state lines, thanks in part to your calls and emails.

The measure died on a 41-56 vote with Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison voting for the failed measure. The air pollution rule requires certain states, including Texas, to cut harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

President Obama had promised to veto the bill if it arrived at his desk. Still, that didn’t stop attacks from foes of the controversial rule, which has prompted lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by the State of Texas and the state’s largest power generator (Dallas-based Luminant, which relies heavily on coal-fired generation).  Both declaring that the rule would harm the reliability of Texas’ electric grid and kill jobs.

Senators from small eastern states, however, said they had done all they could to clean up their own air already but were now contending with 95 percent of pollution that arrives from other states.

Backers of the rule say cleaning up the air is job friendly because it creates green jobs and reduces employee sick days and absenteeism in public schools. Opponents of the rule said installing expensive emissions-cutting retrofits would hurt jobs at a time when creating jobs should be the top priority. They also said it would hurt senior citizens and the poor who would see their power bills increase.

Again, to those of you who made calls and sent in emails, thank you.

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The U.S. Senate is set to take a vote to stop the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules affecting downwind communities.  This single vote – tomorrow at noon – will be an up or down vote in the U.S. Senate and will dramatically affect the EPA’s work on clean air issues from stationary sources like coal plants.

S.J. Res. 27, sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), would block the EPA from moving forward with the regulation called the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR).  Your call or email can make a difference in the air quality of your community.

Need contact information for your U.S. Senator?  Click here to find out who represents you, call or email your Senators and ask them to vote against Sen. Rand Paul’s S.J. Res. 27.

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