Sierra Club Fights for Clean Air in the Lone Star State
Readers of the May 28 Austin Chronicle were greeted by a photo of Texas Sierra Club organizer Eva Hernandez sporting a pair of red boxing gloves.
The cover story, Environmental Cage Match, details the EPA's recent efforts, in tandem with environmental groups, to compel the state—specifically the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)—to clean up Texas' air.
"I have to admit, I moved to Texas without really understanding how big the problem was," the Kansas native, who earned a degree in environmental quality from the University of Kansas in 2004, told the Chronicle. "The biggest surprise to me, when I got here, was that TCEQ doesn't do what the name says."
The TECQ has a long record of catering to the needs and demands of business—the oil and gas industry, petrochemical companies, coal-fired power plants, and other major polluters—at the expense of public health. Texas has led the nation in mercury, ozone, and other emissions over the years.
Hernandez has been criss-crossing the state, helping communities organize and take action to protect themselves from the air pollution that new TCEQ coal-plant permits will inevitably bring.
"The exciting thing about it is we can win!" she says.
Indeed, as Environmental Cage Match went to press, the EPA announced it was taking over the issuance of an operating permit for a Corpus Christi refinery, and was considering intervening at 39 other "major facilities" around the state. EPA's proposed actions have ignited a long-simmering fued between the agency and the state right as the Texas gubernatorial race is beginning to heat up.
"The Obama administration has taken yet another step in its campaign to harm our economy and impose federal control over Texas," said Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has been trying to fast-track the new coal plants. "With their decision to take control of a permitting process that the Clean Air Act allows to be delegated to the states, the EPA ...[has] put a bulls-eye on the backs of hardworking Texans."
The EPA and the Clean Air Act set a cap on allowable levels of carcinogenic air pollutants that, statistically speaking, increases Americans' lifetime risk of cancer by one in a million. The TCEQ has been willing to put Texans at 10 times that risk.
"It takes a lot for EPA to step in and tell a state regulatory agency that it's not doing its job right," Hernandez told the Chronicle. "The fact that EPA is going after Texas is a big deal."
"Well-conceived, effectively implemented environmental protection is good for economic growth," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "The economic costs of unchecked climate change will be orders of magnitude higher for the next generation than it would be for us to take action today."
Neil Carman, below, Clean Air Program Director for the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter and a former air-quality investigator and inspector for the state, has met frequently with EPA staff, including Jackson.
The scope of Texas' air permitting problem, Carman told the Chronicle, is so big "you can't imagine it. It's just such a colossal mess, and it's gone on for so long. It's going to take a while to be resolved."
Environmental groups calculate that if all twelve of the proposed new Texas coal plants are permitted to open, every year Texans will breathe:
- 53,630 tons of sulfur dioxide (which causes increased respiratory symptoms and disease, difficulty in breathing, and premature death)
- 29,660 tons of nitrogen oxide (which increases hospital admissions for asthma)
- 14,000 tons of particulate matter (asthma, heart disease, lung cancer)
- 3,434 pounds of mercury (which harms the brain and nervous system)
The plants would also emit 77 million tons of CO2 annually, exacerbating global warming.
The EPA is set to release rulings on June 30 and August 31 on Texas' prorgam for "new source review," which permits new operations, and on October 31 it will rule on the state's methods of handling "upsets"—major emission events outside normal operational standards, which excuse high levels of "emergency" pollution.
"This is an exciting moment in time," Hernandez told the Chronicle. "I think EPA is poised to force change, if enough people voice their concerns."
Photos courtesy of the Austin Chronicle.