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Power or Pollution?

By Matt Pene
KCEN-TV...NBC 6 Extra

Aired May 3-5, 2004
on NBC 6 News at 10:00 p.m

Matt Pene explores the pros and cons of a proposed new power plant in the small Central Texas town of Riesel. Hear from both side and decide for yourself. Is it power or pollution?

PART 1: The Plan

It's a proposal to bring a billion-dollar coal fired electrical plant to the small town of Riesel just east of Waco. Supporters and critics are weighing in. The economic benefits from the proposed plant could add a jolt to the Central Texas economy, but some worry pollution from the plant could also harm Central Texans.

There's not much to the town of Riesel. Most people just drive by it on Highway 6 on their way to someplace else. But now there's a proposal to bring a third power plant to this plot of land just outside the sleepy town. And if the coal plant is approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, it would be the first coal-fired power plant built in Texas since 1988.

The plant’s project manager, Mike Vogt says, "Natural gas, it's a great fuel and all the facilities we've built in the past have been natural gas, but the supply is much more limited, which leads to higher costs and more volatility."

For years coal-fired power plants like the one in Milam County have been some of the worst polluters in the nation, but Sandy Creek Energy officials say the Riesel plant will use state-of-the-art technology to control emissions and will burn a cleaner coal.

"All of the exhaust from the facility will go through fabric filter bags,” says Vogt, “That will remove 99.9 percent of the particulate emissions from the facility."

The economic windfall from this plant could benefit all of McLennan County and in some unusual ways. For example, plant developers are currently entering into contracts with five area cities to buy the treated waste water from those towns to cool the turbines inside the power plant. And Riesel's $52-million tax base would multiply by 19 allowing local schools to make much needed repairs. The plant would also create more than 100 jobs.

Riesel City Administrator Bill McLellan says, "We'll see an increase in sales tax. We'll see, I think, some upward pressure in property values."

That all may sound good to city officials, but to resident Ricky Bates, the power plant proposal sounds like disaster.

"You move to the country for peace and quiet and then you get something like this on your door step," Bates says. Bates lives within 400 yards of the site. He's worried about pollution from the plant ruining the water supply in Riesel and surrounding areas. Many cities in McLennan County get their drinking water from Lake Waco, and Bates says pollution from plant could add mercury to the lake, something the current treatment plant will have a hard time filtering out.

But power plant officials say the new technology will stop that from happening.

"Lines and other collection systems will be installed to ensure those things won't happen," Vogt says. "“It's the law and we're going to comply with it."

But water is not the only concern. Next, we'll explore if and how the air quality will be affected in Central Texas.

PART 2: Air Quality Effects

How clean the air we breathe around Central Texas is something some of us take for granted. Opponents say a proposal to bring a coal-fired electrical plant to Central Texas could make the air we breathe much dirtier.

The electric plant could bring millions of dollars in tax revenue to the area as well as about hundred jobs, but will our health suffer for it?

It's a proposal to bring the first coal fired power plant to Texas since 19-88 and it will be in our back yard. LS Power Project Manager Mike Vogt says the proposed plant will use the latest technology to control emissions and the plant will comply with Texas requirements, therefore the plant will be safe. But that doesn't convince some environmentalists.

"TCEQ needs to toughen their enforcement," says Karen Hadden. She is the Director of the Sustainable Energy Economic Development, or SEED, Coalition. She says Texas has some of the lowest standards in the nation.

She says Sandy Creek Energy is applying for an air quality permit under the "Best Available Control Technology" standard, a standard she says is not very strict. Hadden says Texas should require the plant to control emissions through a stricter requirement called the "Lowest Achievable Emission Rate".

"This plant would be permitted to go up to 1180 pounds of mercury," Hadden says. "If that were allowed that would make this location the number 2 source of mercury in the most mercury polluted state in the nation."

TCEQ strongly denies its standards are low and officials say there isn't much difference between the two standards Hadden is referring to. But one thing that does remain certain, according to opponents, is the air quality will suffer in Central Texas. 

"It's definitely not going to be good," says Max Schauck, the director of Baylor's Institute of Air Science. Schauck and his team use seven airplanes to measure the air quality around Texas. He says while the new technology would reduce pollutant emission levels, the plant would still emit some levels of nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide, two things that are not good for your health even at low levels. 

"The long-term consequences of these things lower the environmental quality of the air people breathe day in and day out,& he says. "The long-term effects are the ones to worry about."

The Director of TCEQ's Air Quality Division says the agency will grant a permit only if the plant shows they can minimize the adverse health affects across Central Texas. But exactly how much those low levels will affect the air quality here in Central Texas is anyone's guess.

PART 3: Why Riesel?

Many are looking forward to the jobs the plant would create and the money it would bring to our area. but others worry about the potential pollution.

The coal-fired electric plant planned for a spot near Riesel will provide an economic boost to the entire area. But opponents say pollution from the plant will, at the very least, slightly degrade the air quality here in Central Texas.

But why Central Texas in the first place? Do we really need the power? Remember, there are already two natural gas power plants near Riesel.

Plant Project Manager Mike Vogt says, "In the last 3 to 4 years, natural gas prices have gone up substantially. That leads us to believe that there is a need for lower-priced coal that can compete with natural gas."

Vogt says they chose coal because there is an abundant source of it in the U.S. and using domestic coal will reduce future dependence on foreign imports. Plus, Vogt says the coal that will burned will be a cleaner coal brought in from Wyoming. 

But that still doesn't satisfy Ricky Bates, who says, "We don't need the power."

Bates will live less than 400 yards from the plant. He points to the other two power plants near Riesel saying they only run at minimum capacity. And he says pollutants from the plant, no matter how low, will still affect Central Texas.

"People south, east and west of us, when the wind changes, they'll get their portion of the poison," Bates says.

So, why Riesel? Sandy Creek Energy officials say, for starters, the answer lies in the railroad tracks.

"We looked for power transmission lines," says Vogt. "We looked for railroad because we have to deliver our coal in. We looked for a water supply and then we looked for a suitable surrounding area. Those things we found out in Riesel."

But for Bates, he says officials finding Riesel as a suitable location means his property value as well as others around the area will go down, not up like some city officials claim. He says the drinking water around Waco could also become contaminated because of the mercury that will end up in Lake Waco. 

But he does admit, even if the power plant is approved, he wouldn't think of moving. Bates has filed a contested case hearing against the proposed plant meaning if and when the plant gets approved, the TCEQ Commission will hear from Bates and his group before they actually approve the permit.

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