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EPA Rejects Part of Texas Clean Air Plan, Proposes its Own

Views into Mexico across Big Bend National Park on a clear and hazy day. (NPS)

The EPA has rejected a Texas plan to cut emissions and improve air quality, in part because it doesn’t do enough to tackle visibility problems in the Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains.

The federal Regional Haze Program requires states to periodically submit plans for improving visibility in certain national parks and wilderness areas across the country.

On Monday, the EPA tossed out part of the TCEQ’s plan for doing that and instead proposed its own, saying the state’s long-term strategy “does not sufficiently address regional haze visibility impairment” in Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

The EPA also said the state’s plan wouldn’t lead to “reasonable progress” toward meeting a national goal for cleaner air in those areas by the year 2064. It did, however, approve Texas’ strategy for calculating and monitoring baseline visibility conditions.

Under the TCEQ’s 2009 goals, natural visibility would return to Big Bend by the year 2155 – and to Guadalupe Mountains by 2081.

Mark Hansen, the Dallas-based regional associate director for EPA air programs, says the Texas plan simply wouldn’t lead to a timely improvement in air quality in the parks, and that haze over Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains is part of a nationwide problem.

“It’s probably consistent with a lot of other areas in the U.S.,” he said. “We do have influence coming from other countries like Central and South America, and we certainly have our own sources here in Texas.”

The state’s coal plants are at the center of the EPA’s more aggressive approach.

The EPA wants to see a quicker drop in sulfur dioxide emissions at 15 coal-fired power plants located mostly in East Texas. 14 of those would have to install new emissions controls like “clean coal” scrubbing technology on certain burners. One plant – San Miguel Electric Co-op – would not, but it would still have to cut emissions.

[iframe src="https://www.google.com/maps/d/embed?mid=z2W02cYkPZQY.kGIozJlAUpBY" width="500" height="350"iframe]
(Data from SourceWatch.org)

The TCEQ insists its 2009 plan meets all federal requirements to be approved, and moreover, says the upgrades could cost more than $2 billion, and would only result in a “negligible increase in visibility” in the state’s two national parks.

“These costs would invariably be passed on to consumers,” the TCEQ said in a statement, “and could have consequential impacts on the state’s power grid.”

In addition to the costs, the commission has said the seemingly uncontrollable nature of pollution coming into the U.S. from across the border would make adding those new controls unreasonable.

That logic hasn’t stopped some environmentalists from pushing for tighter restrictions on Texas coal.

“TCEQ has basically been saying for years that they really don’t want to do any additional regulations of large industrial sources,” said Cyrus Reed, head of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The group praised the EPA’s move, and has waged its own campaign against some of the plants targeted with the new federal haze plan.

Reed says it’s true that haze over Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains isn’t just coming from coal plants, and that Texas should work with Mexico to tackle that country’s pollution problems as well.

“There is pollution from cars and the oil and gas fields, and Mexico as well at certain times of year,” he said. “That being sad, to say therefore we’re not going to require our largest emitters of sulfur dioxide to do something is really unacceptable to us.”

For its part, the National Park Service wasn’t exactly happy with the TCEQ’s 2009 plan either. In early comments on the TCEQ’s proposed plan, the NPS asked for more information on how Texas pollution was contributing to haze at parks in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arkansas.

NPS also asked for details on why Texas decided to recalculate its definition of natural visibility conditions, worrying that move could lead to a “significant and profound effect on progress over the 10 year planning period and beyond.”

The TCEQ says it will further address the EPA’s new plan in public comments. The EPA will also hold two public hearings on its new plan in Dallas and Austin in January 2015.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.