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Health & Science

Battle Over Coal-Fired Plant Heats Up In Matagorda County

In 2007, clean-air activists declared victory when a Dallas company agreed not to build eight coal-burning power plants in Texas. But the so-called “Texas coal wars” are not over. Thirteen new coal-fired plants are currently under construction or seeking permits or financing. One would be located in Matagorda County, just 60 miles southwest of Houston. KUHF Health Science and Technology reporter Carrie Feibel reports on the ongoing fight.


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Wetlands in the Mad Island Marsh Preserve, a bird refuge that would be located a few miles from the proposed coal plant“We’re standing at the southern tip of the Mad Island Marsh Preserve, overlooking the Intercoastal waterway.”

That’s Jared Judy, a land steward with The Nature Conservancy. The group manages 7,000 acres of wetlands and prairies located just a few miles from the proposed power plant.

“Ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, we had three endangered whooping cranes out here this winter. This complex offers great overwintering site to those species.”

Judy worries that the plant will pull too much water from the Colorado River, and endanger the flow into the wetlands.

“Last year, we were looking at shortages of water without a coal plant pulling from the river. With it added, and a drought, who knows what could happen?”

It’s called the White Stallion Energy Project. If built, the plant would burn coal and petroleum coke to create energy for about 650,000 homes. To do that, the plant would need to extract 32 million gallons of water per day from the lower Colorado. Like other coal plants, it would also emit heavy metals, carbon dioxide, and toxic gases.

“So this plant’s gonna put out a lot of different kinds of pollutants.”

That’s Neil Carman, a chemist with the Sierra Club. He’s trying to drum up opposition to the plant at a community meeting in Bay City, the county seat.

“Whether we’re talking about lead, mercury, silver dioxide, these are poisons in a nutshell.”

A White Stallion executive, Randy Bird, did not attend last week’s meeting. He said later the smokestack emissions will be well under legal limits.

“Our emissions will be far below the thresholds that will have any negative impact to people, sensitive subgroups, animals, vegetation.”

Bird also said the state needs more power.

“Texas is growing by 1500 people a day. There’s just a huge need for new electric generation over the next 20 years.”

White Stallion is waiting for permit approvals from state and federal agencies. The big one is the air permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ. That would allow the plant to release up to four thousand tons a year of nitrogen dioxide, which contributes to ozone. It also would allow 5,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, which forms acid rain and irritates the lungs.

And that’s not just a problem for people near the plant, says Matt Tejada of Air Alliance Houston.

“All of a sudden we’re going to start putting a whole bunch of nitrogen oxide into the air from these power plants in Matagorda that once it pushes up north to the Houston area, it’s gonna be ripe for ozone formation right over Houston.”

Tejada says the timing couldn’t be worse. That’s because the EPA is going to lower the ozone standard this summer, and the Houston region just barely meets the current standard. But White Stallion is promising to bring 150 permanent jobs to Matagorda County. Local politicians are intrigued and so are some residents.

“The technology that has been developed for coal plants is so refined.”

Rebecca Caruthers has lived in Bay City for over 30 years.

“The airspace will be clean; the birds will be safe; and the impact will be fantastic, because people are suffering. They’re suffering right and left. They’re having to leave their homes. And if this will help the community, by all means bring it in.”

The county is comfortable with industry. In addition to some petrochemical plants, there’s a nuclear power plant, the South Texas Project, that employs 1200 people. But some say a coal plant has immediate ecological risks that are simply not worth 150 jobs.

“I feel in my heart that there’s no such thing as ‘clean coal.'”

Marilyn Sitz coordinates an annual bird count that has made Matagorda County an eco-tourism hotspot.

“I feel like you know if they have a coal ash escape like they had up in Tennessee or Kentucky, or wherever that was, my gosh, how many birds will it kill?”

 Joyce Black, who is also running for mayor, urges residents to oppose the White Stallion coal power plant.The TCEQ is expected to make a decision on the air permit this summer.

From the KUHF Health, Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

For more information on the opponents of the plant in Matagorda County, visit the No Coal Coalition website.

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