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At Meeting Today, TCEQ Stays in Big Coal’s Corner

Commisioners gives Las Brisas petcoke plant time to fix mistakes
by Published on

Updated below

Even as EPA formally killed Texas’ “flexible” permitting program today, the Perry-appointed commissioners voted 3-0 2-0 to allow the developers of a huge pet-coke plant in Corpus Christi another chance to fix their mistakes. As I wondered out loud yesterday, would the embattled TCEQ stick its neck out yet again for a big polluter or would they move in a new direction? Now we know the answer.

Two judges had looked at Las Brisas Energy Center LLC’s air permit and decided it was deeply flawed. In March, they recommended that the TCEQ commissioners either remand the permit or reject it outright. Today, environmentalists and citizens from Corpus Christi pleaded with the three commissioners to at least require the company to start the permitting process over. Instead, Messieurs Shaw, Garcia and Rubinstein (Rubinstein abstained) unanimously decided, essentially, to give Las Brisas four more months (even though the company’s attorney said they were fine with six months) to resolve the deficiencies in the application. This was about as good as Las Brisas could get considering how scathing the judges’ ruling had been.

Does anyone really think that at the end of that expedited process Las Brisas won’t get its permit? With all seriousness: Why do we even bother with the dog and pony show of contested case hearings? The judges and the protestants have only marginal influence on the ultimate outcome, because the commissioners already have their minds made up. That’s evident from the Perry-era TCEQ’s perfect track record of greenlighting coal and petcoke plants.

The discussion among the three commissioners was, as usual, hyper-technical and legalistic and involved virtually no debate about the real-world impacts of this unusually dirty power plant. One of the main topics was whether the judges were correct to recommend a more robust analysis for hazardous air pollutants. The decision hinged in part on whether petroleum coke is properly considered a fossil fuel. (Las Brisas would burn pet-coke, which is similar to coal.) In the end, Chairman Shaw decided not to require the judges to re-hear the issue, in effect giving the company a pass on stricter pollution controls for the time-being.

It was as if these men lived on another planet than the 50 citizens who made the trek from Corpus today to speak against Las Brisas.

As Dr. Wes Stafford, a specialist at the Asthma and Allergy Center of Corpus Christi, pointed out, the rate of asthma in children living within five miles of the seven Corpus refineries is more than twice that of kids living more than five miles away.

“The idea of bringing in another facility that will produce as much pollution as all seven of the refineries we have there now is ridiculous,” Stafford said.

Daniel Lucio, a young Corpus activist, summed up the feelings of most of the opponents fairly neatly at a press conference after the hearing:

“This is incredibly disappointing,” Lucio said. “What we have here is business before the people and a broken system of permitting in Texas. … It shows the priorities of the TCEQ and it’s not in the best interest of the public or the public’s health. It’s time really that the EPA step in like we saw today with the flex permits.”

Hal Souder, another Corpus resident, tried to buck up the troops though, suggesting that the dragon (Las Brisas, in his analogy) wouldn’t be slain by a St. George riding to the rescue. Rather, he said, the dragon will eventually “poop out.”

“Before too long they’re going to have to say ‘uncle’ because time is money for these folks,” Souder said.

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One final note: As far as I know, I was the only reporter at the hearing. This is remarkable considering the gravity of the decisions today. The commissioners voted on sweeping water quality standards (I’ll have more on that tomorrow), a massive and controversial power plant that will affect Corpus for a generation, a rock quarry near Glen Rose that opponents say will destroy the ecologically-significant Chalk Mountain area, a tax abatement scheme for polluters that may take away much-needed revenue from public schools, and probably some other important items I missed.

I’m not going to get all weepy about how a free press is the guardian of democracy and all that… but, yeah, it’s worrisome that none of the dailies (hello, Corpus Christi Caller-Times!) was there today.

 

Update: There was another reporter at the hearing, Kathryn Jones of the Glen Rose Reporter. Jones has had her hands full covering environmental issues in Glen Rose: high-voltage power lines proposed to cut through scenic areas, an expansion of the Comanche Peak nuke plant and of course the Chalk Mountain rock crusher. I wonder what John Graves has to say about all this?

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.