Last fall, Las Brisas Energy Center LLC applied for an airquality permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental plantand received preliminary approval, with the backing of then-Mayor Henry Garrett, the Corpus Christi City Council \(which unanimously passed a resolution in favor of Las Brisas, While Las Brisas would be “the largest single capital investment in Nueces County history,” it would also be the single largest polluter in the history of Corpus Christi. Then, over the winter, a grassroots movement developed against Las Brisas. The movement includes some usual suspects, such as local environmentalists. But it also includes some unusual suspects, like doctors from the Nueces County Medical Society, the San Patricio Medical Society, the Texas Medical Association, and the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Opinions diverge among these activists. Some don’t want Las Brisas built under any circumstances. Others want it built using gasification technology, which sounds scatological, but according to the Corpus Christi Caller -Times means “super-heating a solid fuel,” like pet coke, “to produce a synthetic gas that can be burned to produce power.” Gasification technology could, based on results from other gasification plants, reduce emissions at Las Brisas by as much as 6o percent. But Chase Power says gasification is too expensive, and if Corpus insists on it, they’ll pack up and keep walkin. In February, more than 5o Corpus residents and publicinterest groups took their first steps to challenge Las Brisas’ preliminary permit. They requested what’s called a contested case hearing. Similar to a civil court hearing, a contested case hearing is overseen by a judge from the state Office of Administrative Hearingsthe key difference from civil court being that the judge’s decision is subject to review by three TCEQ commissioners appointed by Gov. Rick Perry’s. Based on previous cases, Public Citizen, the health-advocacy group, believes that the commissioners are “likely to approve the plant regardless of what the judge says.” Originally scheduled for August, the contested-case hearing has been delayed until early November. Whatever its outcome, the hearing will give opponents an opportunity to dispute the TCEQ’s initial findingsand, in the process, address concerns regarding Las Brisas’ potentially devastating impact on environmental safety and public health. Despite those safety and health concerns, the pet-coke plant remains an attractive proposition to many. The Caller -Times, which has editorialized in favor of Las Brisas, notes that the city has a climbing unemployment rate, a per-capita income $5,500 below the state average, and “one-fifth of [its] population defined as living in poverty.” Whataburger Restaurants LP, one of Corpus’ largest homegrown businesses, recently packed up its corporate headquarters and 250 jobs and moved to San Antonio. To combat the city’s economic incontinence, the Caller -Times’ editorial board, which described itself in a recent editorial as “focused on growth and development,” endorsed a mayoral candidate, Joe Adame, in April’s municipal electionslargely because of his stated determination to “get something going … and make something happen.” Adame triumphed in the election, along with seven “pro-development, pro-business, and pro-get-it-done” City Council candidates, as the Caller -Times described them. Now, it seems, the No. i “something” to get done is Las Brisas. Last fall, with grief over Whataburger’s departure still fresh, Caller -Times editor Shane Fitzgerald articulated the case for not just building the power plant, but doing it pronto. With “air quality standards getting tougher by the day,” Fitzgerald wrote, “there are all kinds of incentive[s] to build a state of the art facility right away. “This community should hold this project to highest standardsafter all, its health is at stake,” Fitzgerald continhappen here …” What boons will this begging and groveling bring? Las Brisas has agreed to provide some pricey renovations for the Corpus port, build a water pipeline, spend millions on construction, generate millions in tax revenue, and create between 8o and 100 permanent jobs. The company says these jobs will be relatively healthcare and retirement benefits.” That’s the good news. The bad news is that while Las Brisas would be “the largest single capital investment in Nueces County history:’ as the Caller -Times proclaims, it would also likely be, according to TCEQ’s draft permit and the 2006 Nueces County Emissions Inventory, the largest single polluter in county historyincreasing air emissions by a staggering 7o percent. Even without Las Brisas, a visit to Corpus is not exactly a stay at Club Med. For all its loveliness, the city ’em, seven oil refineries. Here are a few terrifying facts about Corpus Christi: The rate of pediatric emergency-room visits for acute asthma is double the state average. The rate of overall birth defects is the highest in Texas, and 84 percent higher than the state average. The rate of severe birth defects is 17 percent higher than the state average. The residents of a working-class neighborhood located near Refinery Row were recently found, in blood and 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 7, 2009
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