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Archive for February, 2011

By Stefanie Herweck

For the first time in many years, coal plants produced more electricity in Texas than any other source, accounting for almost forty percent of our power in 2010.  In fact, Texas consumes far more coal power than any other state.

Living along the Rio Grande, more than a thousand miles from Appalachian coal mines and 200 miles from the nearest coal-fired plants, it’s easy to forget about our dependence on this dirtiest of all fossil fuels.  And it’s easy to ignore the damage we’re doing by using coal.

After all, how many of us stop a moment before flipping the light switch to think about entire mountaintops being blasted away to get to a thin vein of coal beneath?

Mountain top removal mining has leveled hundreds of mountains, and rubble from their tops has been scraped off and dumped into valleys and streams below.  The blasting creates a barren wasteland atop the newly formed plateau, and the waste rock pollutes entire waterways, burying them at the headwaters.

The coal from these mines and from other surface and underground mines is then washed to remove impurities.  This process leaves a toxic slurry as a waste product.  Every year 90 million gallons of slurry is either injected underground, becoming a threat to the drinking water of hundreds of communities, or poured into surface impoundments which sometimes rupture, causing a tragic loss of life and long-term environmental catastrophe.

Still more lives are lost in the mining process itself.  The workers who extract the coal for our power plants to burn are at extreme risk for pneumoconiosis, or black lung.  The CDC estimates that 12, 000 miners died of black lung in the ten years prior to 2002.

But that far away devastation wasn’t on our minds when we bumped up the thermostat last week to get just a bit warmer.  There aren’t any coal mines along the Texas-Mexico border, after all, and the closest coal-fired power plants are near Victoria and San Antonio.

In fact, the Coleto Creek Power Plant in Victoria has made the news in recent months.  Farmers and scientists contend that the sulfur dioxide the plant emits has been slowly killing the surrounding vegetation, including the trees in area pecan orchards.  Coal-fired power plants are the largest human-caused source of sulfur dioxide, which leads to the formation of acid rain and damages plants, making them vulnerable to disease, insects, and extreme weather.

The smokestacks of the Coleto Creek plant are also responsible for particle pollution, or soot, one of the most deadly types of air pollution.  The sulfur dioxide that they release reacts in the air to form tiny particles which can be inhaled deep into the lungs, where our bodies absorb them as readily as they absorb oxygen.  Soot can trigger heart attacks and strokes, cause irregular heartbeats, and lead to premature death.   In 2004, the Clean Air Task Force found that nearly 24,000 people a year die from particle pollution associated with power plants.

2010 brought a dubious distinction to another coal-fired plant in South Texas.  The San Miguel plant is near Christine, Texas, off Highway 281 an hour south of San Antonio.  San Miguel made the Environmental Integrity Project’s list of top mercury polluters, with the fourth highest mercury emission rate in the entire United States.

Mercury is a highly toxic metal that rains down on streams and lakes, accumulating in the fish and seafood that we eat.  In our bodies it acts as a neurotoxin, interfering with the brain and nervous system.  Children and unborn babies are extremely vulnerable to even low levels of mercury exposure, which can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, and kidney disorders.

Just up the highway from San Miguel on the south side of San Antonio is the J.K. Spruce 2 Power Plant, which just came online in 2010.  Located near an older, notoriously dirty coal plant called Deely, the Spruce 2 is a darling of the Texas pro-coal lobby.  It features state-of-the-art pollution controls, leading officials to tout it as one of the cleanest coal plants in the country.  Even with the latest technology, however, the Spruce 2 spews out thousands of tons of airborne pollutants every year.

The pollutants the Spruce 2 manages to keep out of the air do not go away, but are trapped by filters and other pollution controls as sludge waste.  This sludge, along with other byproducts made up of parts of coal that do not fully burn, is known as coal combustion waste.  Combustion wastes are laden with toxic doses of deadly chemicals like lead, arsenic and mercury.  Most coal plants store this dangerous waste onsite in surface impoundments or dispose of it in nearby landfills, where leakage can occur and polluted runoff can contaminate ground and surface water.

More than 120 million tons of this waste is produced each year by U.S. coal plants.  Ironically, as coal plants make efforts to clean up the pollution they emit into the air, their solid and liquid waste production grows.

The problem of where and how to safely store this waste doesn’t come up as we turn on our computers and our TVs.   We don’t shudder as we push the power button, thinking of the impact of new plants proposed for South Texas.

The latest proposed plants are the beautifully named White Stallion Energy Center and the Las Brisas Energy Center, in Bay City and Corpus Christi respectively.  White Stallion will burn both coal and petroleum coke, a petroleum byproduct similar to coal.  Las Brisas will burn petroleum coke.

Both recently won permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to build their facilities despite assertions from administrative law judges, TCEQ’s own staff, the Environmental Protection Agency, elected officials, and citizens’ groups that the plant developers are not doing enough to protect public health and safety from dangerous emissions.

To gain a foothold in these South Texas communities, these developers touted the new, cleaner technologies that the plants will employ.  But as residents learned more about how dirty even the newest coal and coke-fired plants are, a tide of opposition has risen.

Even though it is easy to forget about our dependence on coal here along the Rio Grande, we have good reason to join with our fellow South Texans in opposing these new coal and coke plants.

If the plants are built and come online in South Texas, they will add to the over 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired plants in the United States.  Carbon dioxide is a primary culprit in global warming, and coal plants are responsible for 33percent of our total energy-related carbon dioxide pollution, the highest of any fossil fuel.

The negative effects of carbon dioxide and global warming are already being observed around the world.  Left unaddressed, warming will lead to such global problems as water shortages, widespread malnutrition, loss of life and property from more intense weather events, widespread flooding and loss of land in coastal areas, loss of biodiversity, and changes in precipitation patterns.

Unchecked, global warming could also have devastating impacts on our communities here on the coast and along Rio Grande.  As ice sheets melt and warmer ocean water expands, the resulting sea level rise could permanently inundate South Padre Island and other coastal communities.  Warmer waters are expected to intensify the hurricanes that already threaten the Rio Grande Valley and make them even more deadly.  Drought conditions and unpredictable rainfall patterns could cripple the agriculture that is the backbone of our economy.

For the long-term health of our communities, our country, and our world, it is critical that border residents become conscious of where our energy comes from.  We must open our eyes to the harmful effects of our dependence on coal, and the impacts of coal mining, pollution, wastes, and coal’s significant contribution to global warming.  We should demand that our regulatory agencies do their jobs, and protect public and environmental health.  We must reject dirty coal and become a part of the clean energy solution.

And border residents are uniquely poised to do so.  We do not have to sacrifice our health or our environment to turn on the lights.  With abundant solar and wind energy available in South Texas, we have the opportunity to lead the nation in renewable energy development.  It is time we move beyond coal and invest in a cleaner future.

Originally published in the Rio Grande Guardian .

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