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Coal War, Part Deux

by Forrest Wilder
The Texas Observer

Dateline Texas: 12/2/2005

In October 2005, Gov. Rick Perry ordered the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to expedite the permits for new power plants in the state. A month later, a few Central Texans got a say in the matter.

From November 14-16, teams of opposing lawyers battled over a contested air permit an out-of-state energy company needs for its proposed coal-fired power plant in Riesel, a town near Waco (see "The Coal War", November 4). Lawyers for TPOWER, a grassroots organization that wants to stop the plantís construction, set out to prove that the company, LS Power, had not explored the best and cleanest technology to reduce air pollution. They also contend the company failed to consider the impact on Dallas-Fort Worth air quality. LS Powerís lawyers argued that they had fully complied with all environmental and administrative rules in the permitting process. The judges heard testimony from experts from both sides. Under cross-examination, Kathy French, the LS Power employee who wrote the bulk of the air permit application, revealed that the plant site would contain piles of coal more than 100 feet tall; that the company has not done any geological investigations of the site pertaining to the water table; and that certain "startup and shutdown" emissions not included in the main air permit could render the companyís worst-case pollution scenario even more damaging than initially reported.

Environmentalists and industry executives await the outcome of the hearings anxiously since it could set the stage for six other proposed coal-fired plants around the state. A coal plant for generating electricity has not been built in Texas for 15 years. If TPOWER prevails in court, the Texas "coal rush" may be slowed considerably. "With the seven plants proposed, four just in Central Texas, we feel like this plant has got to be the cleanest possible," said Robert Cervenka, a TPOWER founder and Riesel rancher.

It is unusual for an air permit for a power plant to be contested in court because most citizens donít have money to pay for a lawyer and the technical issues are "so complex and so detailed that most citizens donít have a chance to get their thoughts in order," said Wendi Hammond, the lead attorney for the group. Hammond said they will appeal any unfavorable decision in Travis County District Court. The judges have until March 20 to send their recommendations to the TCEQ for a final ruling.

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