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DATELINE The Coal War BY FORREST WILDER At 75, Robert Cervenka is a weathered rancher who is only too willing to tell you that he has “never cared much for environmentalists.” It’s a curious thing for Cervenka to say, considering that he and his family are at the forefront of a surprisingly sophisticated grassroots environmental group located in President Bush’s home county. It wasn’t always that way. Cervenka’s activism began in September 2003 when he, his wife Jo, and their sons Darrell and Randy learned from a newspaper article that LS Power, a private St. Louis company that builds coal-fired power plants in rural areas around the country, was planning on constructing a $1 billion 800-megawatt coal-burning plant about one mile from their home just outside Riesel, a small town east of Waco. The proposed plant would generate enough electricity for about 500,000 homes and create 100 permanent jobs. In churning out jobs and juice, the plant would also burn an brought from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, sending thousands of tons of ozone-forming gases as well as mercury and soot into the air each year. Along with six other proposed coal-burning units in the state, the Riesel facility is part of a national “coal rush” that threatens to roll back gains made in air quality and make it difficult for urban areas to meet EPA-mandated reducestimated that more than 100 coal-fired power plants are in the works around the country, spurred on by high natural gas prices and billions in subsidies and tax breaks offered as part of an energy bill passed by the U.S. Congress this year. If state environmental officials approve its construction, the Riesel facility would be the first coal-fired power plant constructed in Texas since 1988. Robert Cervenka is determined not to let that happen. His campaign to stop a local facility near the Cervenka homestead has transformed the Central Texas rancher into an advocate for changing the way we power our lives. S fitting at the Cervenkas dining room table in August, Robert, Jo, and Darrell recount the long two years they have spent trying to halt the power plant. Jo opens a thick binder that contains a makeshift history of their strugglenewspaper clippings, letters to lawmakers, complex data on air emissions and their health effects. An editorial Robert wrote for the local paper in February 2004 catches my eye. “I am not a tree-hugging envi ronmentalist,” he wrote, “only a concerned farmer/rancher who would like to leave our land and the land downwind a 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 4, 2005 cleaner and safer place to live.” Through the window, we can see the Lake Creek natural gas plant less than a mile away. Another natural gas plant is located nine miles north. Both are “peak” plants; they operate only during seasons of extreme heat and cold when electricity is most needed. But when Darrell and his siblings were kids, the family would wake up to a yellow haze in the air. Darrell suffered asthma attacks requiring emergency room treatment; years later, Robert and Jo came down with asthma as well. Although they can’t prove it, the Cervenkas, along with many of their neighbors, attribute their respiratory problems to prolonged exposure to air pollution from the Lake Creek facility. As a result, they eye another power plant in the area with deep unease. Soon after they learned about the proposed power plant, the Cervenkas formed a group called Texans Protecting members include ranchers, farmers, retired people, and a local cop, in addition to a Sierra Club member or two. The group began by talking to local and county officials about the environmental and health effects of burning coal. They testified that on windless days, the chemical-laden smoke from the plant would pile up over Riesel subjecting the young and elderly to bouts of asthma and other respiratory problems. They argued that soot would collect in ranchers’ fields and that the sulfur from the smokestacks would corrode fences. They pointed to a flurry of recent studies showing that the level of mercury in one out of six pregnant mothers in the U.S. is dangerously high and that this mercury concentration can be traced back to coal-burning plants. On several occasions, TPOWER invited health and environmental experts to argue the finer points in front of local officials. For the business community and most elected officials, the coal plant means the prospect of tax revenue, jobs, and economic development. McClennan County officials have estimated that LS Power would add as much as $4 million a year in tax revenue to county coffers and millions more to the Riesel school district. But to “make [LS Power] competitive with other power projects,” the company is asking the county and the city of Waco to provide as much as $6 million in taxpayer-funded incentives, according to Mike Vogt, project manager for LS Power. While TPOWER seems to have convinced Waco and the county to hold off on the incentives package pending a final decision on the permit application, the Riesel city council voted unanimously in July of this year to approve a tax abatement for LS Power. This agreement allows the company to make standard yearly payments to the city of about $190,000 in lieu of paying local taxes. As to TPOWER’s contention that the plant would pol I