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Plant might hinder clean-air efforts

March 02, 2004

By Scott Streater Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star Telegram

A proposed power plant near Waco would supply electricity for decades to residents statewide, create as many as 100 permanent jobs and add tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue to the rural region.

The coal-fired plant is also projected to emit thousands of tons of ozone-producing pollutants just 90 miles south of Dallas/Fort Worth, hampering efforts to bring the region into compliance with tough new federal ozone standards.

It will take months to obtain state air permits for the Sandy Creek Energy Station and four years to build it.

But already, the proposal is sparking debate.

Dallas/Fort Worth leaders and clean-air advocates worry that the plant would increase pollution in a region already facing severe sanctions for violating federal ozone standards.

"Itís a dirty plant," said Neil Carman, clean-air program director for the Sierra Club Lone Star chapter in Austin. "Itís really going to impact the Metroplex."

Waco area leaders have embraced the project and its economic potential.

"If it becomes a reality, it will be an economic boon not only to the county but to the entire region," said McLennan County Judge Jim Lewis, who said he does not believe that the plantís pollution will affect the Metroplex.

State regulators say any criticism is premature.

"I canít tell you that what they have proposed in their permit is what we will end up deciding is OK," said Steve Hagle, an air permits administrator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. But Hagle said that regardless of the final permitís requirements, the plantís pollution would affect Dallas/Fort Worth.

"Thatís just obvious from the location," he said.

Winds of change

The main contaminants of concern are nitrogen oxides, the chief man-made component of ground-level ozone and a natural byproduct of burning coal.

Wind can carry toxic emissions hundreds of miles; pollution from as far away as Houston is known to contribute to Metroplex ozone problems.

The state will require Sandy Creek Energy Associates, the East Brunswick, N.J., company building the plant, to develop computer models to predict whether the plantís emissions would significantly contribute to ozone formation in Dallas/Fort Worth.

"Thatís certainly going to be a key question weíre going to have to answer," said Mike Vogt, the companyís project manager.

But Vogt said the company plans to install equipment that will significantly reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and fine particles that can severely damage the lungs.

"From what weíve seen so far, with all the controls weíve got on there, weíre really not expecting there to be a problem," he said.

High hopes

Perhaps no area would benefit more from the plant than Riesel, a modest farming community with 973 residents and one traffic light. The plant would be built on land within the city limits and on unincorporated county land.

Riesel school officials said tax dollars from the plant could transform the district.

The districtís 610 students are divided between an elementary school and a high school/junior high campus.

The plant could increase the districtís tax base by as much as 15 times, making it one of the stateís wealthiest districts, Superintendent Ronnie Urbantke said.

"I would think thatís got to be a positive thing," he said.

"This is not something thatís just going to benefit the Riesel Independent School District. This is a large enough project that itís going to benefit a lot of people all over McLennan County."

Some residents disagree.

Robert Cervenka, a cattle farmer who lives less than a mile from the proposed site, said he fears that the plantís pollution would trigger asthma attacks and contaminate streams and lakes for miles around with mercury.

"Iím not normally an environmentalist, but darn it, this is important," said Cervenka, 73. "I just flat donít want it. I think itís the worst thing that could happen here."

Clean vs. dirty

Environmentalists say the key is whether the state requires the plantís owners to use the most modern technology to reduce air pollution.

Preliminary plans for the plant do not include such technology, said Ramon Alvarez, a staff scientist with Environmental Defense in Austin.

"This plant will produce significant additional emissions in a region that already has too many emissions to achieve and maintain compliance with federal clean-air standards," he said.

Alvarez pointed to a proposed coal-fired power plant near San Antonio thatís projected to emit almost half the nitrogen oxides expected to come from the Riesel plant.

"The state is going to be in a tough situation if they say this is acceptable when youíve got this plant in San Antonio thatís much cleaner," he said.

Vogt, the Sandy Creek Energy Associates project manager, said such comparisons are unfair.

"We went through a thorough analysis to come up with the emissions numbers we proposed, and we believe that theyíre the lowest reasonable," he said. "Weíll see if the state agrees."

Carman, the Sierra Club official, said he isnít optimistic.

"The agency could opt to do tougher things," he said. "They can say, ĎHey, weíve got Dallas up there, and we donít want to add to problems there.í But they wonít. This is why these companies come to Texas."

Proposed power plant

  • An East Brunswick, N.J.-based company applied in January for a permit to build a coal-fired power plant, Sandy Creek Energy Station, in Riesel, near Waco.

  • The 800-megawatt plant would occupy 700 acres straddling the boundaries of Riesel and unincorporated McLennan County.

  • Plant construction would cost as much as $1.2 billion and take four years. During the peak construction period, as many as 1,200 steelworkers, electricians and laborers would be employed.

  • The plant would sell electricity to utility companies and cooperatives statewide, including Dallas/Fort Worth, potentially reaching millions of residents, company officials say.

  • The plant would burn coal in boilers to produce steam, which would power a turbine that generates electricity.

  • The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is reviewing an air permit application, is accepting written comments. The address: Office of the Chief Clerk, MC-105, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, P.O. Box 13087, Austin, TX, 78711-3087.

  • For more information, call the commissionís Office of Public Assistance, (800) 687-4040.

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