click to enlarge feature-coalmine3_330jpg
Wyoming's Powder River Basin provides CPS with about six million tons of coal each year. Huge excavating machines and steam shovels dig out the coal, which is crushed and stored until unloaded onto about 100 railcars that transport it to San Antonio. Photo by Jill Morrison.
CPS' new coal plant will provide San Antonio with more energy — but at a price

The Wyodak coal seam runs down the neck of eastern Wyoming like a jugular vein pumping blood from its head to its heart. The seam formed 35 to 75 million years ago, when Wyoming was not a high, windswept plateau, but a wild, primordial swamp spawning giant trees that flourished in the heat and humidity. Over time, the trees fell into the stagnant water, where, suffocated by a parfait of rocks, plants, and dirt, they turned into peat, which after thousands of years of lying under pressure, transformed into coal.

The seam is thick and prolific: Up to 100 feet deep inside the Powder River Basin, the Wyodak harbors billions of tons of coal in the 18 mines that pockmark the rocky terrain. Nowhere in the 14,000-square-mile basin is the seam fatter than in Gillette, a mining town of 20,000 people. And 20 miles south of Gillette, from a gaping pit in the earth called the Cordero Rojo Mine, San Antonio gets its coal.

In addition to City Public Service, San Antonio's municipally owned utility, many of America's 1,070 coal-fired power plants depend on the Wyodak, the top-producing seam in the United States. Under pressure from federal and state regulators to reduce pollution from their smokestacks, power companies seek out Wyodak coal because it is low in sulfur and burns cleaner than Appalachian bituminous or Texas lignite, which are softer, smokier, and sootier.

But that is not to say that Wyodak coal is clean, or that CPS can burn it without environmental and human consequences. When we San Antonians flip on our porchlights or turn up the air conditioning, we are tapping into a piece of prehistory, and at the same time changing the world's future — and not for the better. Gillette and the rest of Wyoming's coal country have been environmentally devastated from mining and its aftermath. Across America and in San Antonio, pollution from coal-fired plants — including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, lead, and mercury — is responsible for thousands of respiratory illnesses and premature deaths each year.

Regardless, CPS plans to build a third coal-fired power plant near Lake Calaveras to accompany its older facilities, the aging J.T. Deely Units 1 and 2, and the comparatively adolescent J.K. Spruce, whose belching smokestacks define the southeastern Bexar County skyline. Despite a virulent public outcry, on June 30 the CPS board voted to let the the utility apply for a permit to construct the yet-unnamed plant, scheduled to be operating by 2009.

CPS' commitment to coal is predictable, and reflects a larger, national obsession with fossil fuels. Thanks to a powerful mining and utility lobby, coal is a cornerstone of the Bush administration's national energy policy, which dilutes laws governing pollution controls and pays lip service to conservation and renewable energy. Lax or non-existent state and federal regulations fail to curb polluters; if anything, the loopholes encourage utilities like CPS to keep building, keep burning, and keep polluting.

Dirty Deely

Patricia Lenzy is a casualty of San Antonio's bad air. While her asthma also can be partially attributed to exhaust from thousands of cars and trucks, escaping vapors from gas pumps, and dust from the nearby BFI waste dump, she has to look only six miles south from her front porch to find San Antonio's largest industrial polluter — CPS. For the past 16 years, Lenzy has lived in the Lakeside neighborhood, and shortly after moving here from the Near East Side, she began to feel as though she were suffocating. "You get anxious," she said of her asthma attacks. "You don't know what will happen next. It's pretty scary when you can't breathe."

Her doctor has prescribed a Singular inhaler and a breathing machine to help her cope with her disease. She uses a humidifier in her house, and spends a lot of time indoors. "It cuts down on my quality of life. I can't go out."


The pending federal Clean Power Act, also known as the Clean Smokestacks Act in the House, would would require deeper cuts in power plant emissions. Predictably, President Bush's counterproposal to the Clean Power/Smokestacks Acts - euphemistically called the "Clear Skies Initiative" would further delay and dilute emissions reductions. He is also undermining EPA recommendations by asking for weaker mercury rules.

U.S. Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) also opposes strengthening pollution rules, and coincidentally, is drowning in money from the utilities industry. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Qaulity (and former consultant for Atlantic Richfield), he has received $132,000 from electric utilities industry - his top contributor - since the 2001-02 election cycle.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, who sits on the subcommittee on clean air, climate change and nuclear safety, has received $110,000 from electric utilities industry since 1999.

To read more about the Clean Smokestacks and Clean Power Acts, go to

Lenzy is one of thousands of asthmatics in San Antonio. A door-to-door community survey conducted by the Public Interest Research Group found that 23 percent of households in Southeast San Antonio had one or more asthmatic family members. In an informal sample of 16 schools in the San Antonio Independent School District, Director of Health Services Susan Kasper found that 4.3 percent of students in four East Side elementaries received asthma medication at school, the highest quadrant in the city. "I'm not sure what these numbers mean, but it needs further study," Kasper said.

When Lenzy does leave her home, it's often to attend citizens' meetings about pollution from CPS' Deely plant — or to join others who suffer from respiratory problems to plead with the utility not to build a new facility. "I've been to a bunch of meetings and told them `CPS officials and board members` about it," she said. "They act like they don't care."

Oh, but CPS does care, insisted Board Chairman Stephen Hennigan at a May 23 CPS board meeting. He emphasized that CPS is a publicly owned utility and should answer to its ratepayers — shortly after he forbade citizens from addressing the issue of a new plant. And in a June 25 meeting with Neighborhoods First Alliance, an activist group based on the East Side, CPS CEO Milton Lee sat across the table from Patricia Lenzy and denied that power plant emissions can affect human health — despite a study by the Harvard Medical School that revealed 93 San Antonians die each year from pollution produced by coal-fired power plants. "I've never seen a credible study showing that," Lee said. Asked if he considered Harvard credible, he refused to answer the question.

Built in 1977, Deely is CPS' oldest, dirtiest plant, and combined with Spruce, emitted 712 pounds of mercury into the air in 2000, according to the EPA. By contrast, Edison Mission Energy, which owns 27 electric-generating plants in the U.S., earned the dubious blue ribbon with 5,871 pounds. `For other pollutant levels, see chart, at the end of this report.`

In an interview with the Current, CPS' Director of Environmental Research Joe Fulton downplayed the amount saying, "that isn't considered a lot," and "mercury is a naturally occuring element." Yet, it is also an incredibly toxic one. Frequent mercury exposure can cause abnormal fetal development, learning disabilities, neurological damage, even death. Once released from smokestacks and other industrial sources, mercury travels on the wind, landing on the ground or in water, where it enters the food chain. Mercury has been detected at high levels in fish throughout the world — even in the San Antonio River in south Bexar County and near Floresville, where the EPA has issued fish consumption advisories. Samples from white bass, smallmouth buffalo, longnose and spotted gar, and flathead catfish all exceeded the EPA's mercury standard for human consumption — but not the state's, which is more lenient.

Seven-hundred and twelve pounds aren't considered a lot because there is no EPA standard for mercury from power plants — the only industry exempted from federal clean air standards for these emissions. Yet due to pressure from the utilities and energy lobby, draft mercury regulations due out in December might not be implemented, or could be watered down.

Deely also has soot problems. According to records from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Deely has exceeded opacity limits more than 6,000 times since 1999 — and that's not including a year's worth of missing data. If a plant has high opacity levels, it means the emissions are dense and thick enough with soot and other fine particles that you can't see through the air. Opacity is measured in six-minute intervals; if emissions go beyond certain density limits for at least six minutes, then it is recorded as an exceedance. However, the TCEQ has never cited Deely for opacity violations.

Fulton said that federal air regulations allow plants to be out of compliance during startup and shutdown, the time when most of CPS' exceedances occurred. The law also allows plants one exceedance per hour at up to 27 percent opacity — meaning 27 percent of the light is blocked by dirt and soot. Yet, TCEQ records show that on many days, dozens of exceedances occurred — meaning CPS often shut down and restarted Deely more than 24 times a day.

Even though Deely ranks as San Antonio's No. 1 industrial polluter, it doesn't have scrubbers — a modern technology that helps reduce the amount of sulfur compounds coming from the smokestacks. (Built in 1992, Spruce has scrubbers.) Fulton said that since Deely burns low-sulfur coal it is not required to have scrubbers; yet, Deely and Spruce combined still emit 23,000 tons of sulfur dioxide each year.

Under pressure from citizens' groups and U.S. Representative Ciro Rodgriguez, CPS is installing some new pollution controls to reduce emissions. In mid-June, Rodriguez wrote CPS a scathing letter, admonishing the utility for failing to live up to promises it made about reducing Deely's pollution. "I am severely disappointed to learn in my visit that CPS has not yet implemented improvements to Deely, nor added coal yard sprayers. I am concerned that the plans to improve the Deely plant remain just that — plans."

click to enlarge feature-coaltrain_330jpg
Railcars filled with Wyoming coal destined for San Antonio. Courtesy photo.
Coincidentally, CPS recently announced it will install baghouses on both Deely units to replace older technology. Similar to a giant vacuum cleaner, a baghouse traps fly ash, a coal by-product, before it enters the air, and could reduce the amount that leaves the smokestacks by half. The $30-80 million project won't be operating for another three to four years.

In addition, the TCEQ requires all plants east of Interstate 35 to lower their nitrogen oxide pollution: CPS has halved its output of nitrogen oxide from 1997 levels.

And a $2 million irrigation system to dampen coal dust is scheduled to be running next year — at the behest of East Side activists.

CPS officials are touchy about accusations that its coal-fired plants are dirty, and cites EPA data showing Spruce and Deely are among the cleanest plants in the U.S. for sulfur and nitrogen compounds. But not everyone agrees with that assessment. In a July 28 press release, CPS incorrectly cited the Natural Resources Defense Council as listing the utility as among the lowest polluters in the U.S. Actually, according to the Council's 2002 statistics, of the Top 100 largest electricity generators, CPS ranks among the top third emitters of mercury: 30th. CPS stands at 45th in carbon dioxide, a major contributor to greenhouse gas. CPS did rank cleaner in sulfur dioxide — 67th.

"Frankly there's nothing here that makes this utility particularly outstanding or clean," said Patricio Silva, an energy attorney with the Council, adding he would not characterize CPS as one of "the lowest emission coal units in the nation."

Mega-Unknowns Persist About New Mega-Plant

Although the public had one month to respond to plans for the new, 750-megawatt, $1 billion plant, CPS officials had been building their case for the project for two years.

At a June 7 Neighborhood Resources conference, CPS officials unveiled a PowerPoint presentation that hinted at plans for a new plant. Coal is cheap, officials said — although health costs aren't factored into the price — and key to meeting the energy demands of CPS' service area, which could grow by 400,000 people in the next 20 years. CPS settled on that projection on the advice of two firms — which it paid — and the U.S. Census. A census official told the Current it has not projected growth for individual counties.

As CPS' public relations campaign grew, so did opposition to the new plant, as citizens filled a CPS board meeting in May and held private meetings with the utility to persuade it to reconsider. At a June 23 public meeting at Wheatley Middle School, plant opponents outnumbered supporters 2-1 and requested a 180-day moratorium on the vote to investigate issues about building a new plant. "You have a tremendous moral responsibiity not to put that much pollution in the air," commented San Antonio resident Enrique Valdivia. "Once you spend the money you can't get it back."

CPS' Milton Lee dismissed the idea of granting the moratorium. As the day of the board vote grew closer, CPS became more aggressive in contending a new plant was the only way to meet San Antonio's energy demands. On June 25, Lee told Neighborhoods First Alliance that despite the pleas from people with respiratory problems and environmental concerns, he did not hear "any fatal flaw" in the plan. He warned that if CPS stopped the permit process, San Antonio wouldn't have reliable, cheap electricity by 2009. "We're taking a risk today by waiting," he said gravely, adding that CPS could conduct air modeling and health studies during the permitting process. "I can't see stopping the coal plant."

There was another deterrent to halting the plant: CPS had earmarked $2 million for consultants and engineers to study the project.

The new plant will be required to have "state-of-the-art" pollution controls, also known as Best Available Control Technology. CPS' Director for Environmental Management Scott Smith said he expects the plant to be among the cleanest in the U.S. However, more stringent technology exists — LAER (Lowest Emissions Achievable Rates) — and is already used in Houston because the feds have designated it as non-attainment area for pollution; its air pollution levels have consistently violated federal regulations.

Although the new plant will add emissions to Deely and Spruce pollution, Smith said he doesn't anticipate any overall increase based on 1997 levels. Yet these levels aren't necessary clean, and by the time the new plant goes on line, could be outdated.

Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition, an Austin-based environmental group with 600 San Antonio members, said she questions the costs and the impacts. "I've not seen numbers. CPS can't tell us how much pollution this plant will produce."

click to enlarge cps_braunig_330jpg
TCEQ, The Fox, Guarding CPS' Henhouse

While the TCEQ will review CPS' permit application `see box, page 9`, the commission is notorious for its leniency in granting air permits and enforcing air pollution regulations. `See "Bend over and cough," Current, February 7-13, 2002`.

"A loophole to one is not to another," said TCEQ Air Permitting Combustion Team Leader Eric Hendrickson. "Laws have been written very broadly and very specifically. The industry says it's going too fast and costs too much money. Others say they're not doing it fast enough. There needs to be a sense of fairness."

That "fairness" appears to favor polluters. In 1997, the TCEQ's fomer public interest counsel Mark Alvarado testified in front of the House State Affairs Committee that the commission is a pushover for polluters. "I was there for six years and I heard it time and time again," said Alvarado, quoted in the Texas Observer. "The primary client of the TNRCC is the industry it regulates."

Neil Carman worked in the commission's air department in the 1970s and 1980s. Disillusioned, he left the TCEQ, and now works for the Sierra Club. He alleges that TCEQ's air permits are "flawed," and that the commission's health review — an integral part of the permit approval process — uses guidelines, not standards, for dozens of hazardous chemicals in air pollution.

"I directly observed that the whole process has serious cracks," he wrote in an e-mail to the Current.

Three toxicologists who studied the TCEQ's permitting process and pollutant standards wrote in peer-reviewed scientific journals that the commission's massaging of the numbers — usually by averaging levels of pollutants rather than using maximum levels — was a "questionable and faulty basis on which to determine impacts on human health."

Coal's Ground Zero

The environmental and health impacts of coal are not confined to Patricia Lenzy's lungs or the fish in the Lower San Antonio River. The destruction begins farther up the energy chain — at the Cordero Rojo Mine.

Here, gigantic excavating machines called draglines upend the earth, as steam shovels, trucks, and bulldozers cradle tons of rock and probe the Wyodak seam for the black remnants of ancient trees. Sometimes, to get at a particularly stubborn piece of the seam, miners have to blast it open, so machines can reach into the gash to grab the coal.

Owned by Kennecott Energy, Cordero Rojo yielded 43 million tons of coal in 2000, and more than six tons were sold to CPS, the mine's largest customer. After it is mined, the coal is dumped into crushers that reduce it to about two inches in diameter. The coal is stored in silos until it is loaded onto about 100 rail cars and transported 1,000 miles on the Union Pacific Railroad to San Antonio.

Coal is cheap, plentiful, and profitable for Kennecott Energy and Campbell County's mining-dependent economy. Yet, mining is devastating Wyoming and harming its residents' health. Jill Morrison, community organizer for the Powder River Basin Council, said that while federal law requires coal mining companies to restore the excavated land, reclamation is lagging in Campbell County; thousands of acres are wrecked and useless.

Campbell County also has some of Wyoming's highest asthma rates due to the blasting, which spews dust and nitrogen dioxide into the air. "You get these big clouds after a blast," Morrison said. "In the pits there are coal fires and coal smoke."

Coalbed methane wells also generate profits for energy companies and while wreaking destruction in the region. Natural gas is trapped in the fissures of underground coal beds, which lie beneath aquifers. To access the gas, energy companies pump out millions of gallons of water and dump it into unlined reservoirs and onto the ground. Contaminated by salts, arsenic, and barium, the water poisons private wells, damages private ranches, and destroys plant and animal habitats.

The federal Bureau of Land Management authorizes companies to drill the methane wells. In 1996, there were 110 wells in Wyoming; now there are 12,000. By 2010, it is estimated there will be 50,000.

"It's pretty pathetic," Morrison said. "This state is really run by the mineral industry and the county is a mining company town where people are somewhat afraid to speak about the issues."

It's no wonder, a federal district court recently threw out a SLAPP suit lodged by the coal industry against environmentalists. In the suit, the Western Fuels Association, a Colorado-based cooperative, contended any statement in the media connecting coal with global warming should be construed as an attack on the coal industry.

Although denied in the courts, Western Fuels now claims God is on coal's side. In 1996, Western Fuels' President Fred Palmer told coal conference attendees in Spain that coal and oil are among God's greatest gifts, and should be used according to Genesis' plan for man to subdue the earth. He then criticized governments for having "the arrogance to attempt to intervene in the normal, industrial evolution of mankind."

What's Next For SA?

Coal can be credited for launching the industrial revolution. Yet considering other modern, available energy sources, coal's environmental and health impacts — throughout its journey from the mine to our lungs — are outweighing its benefits.

Part of the answer to San Antonio — and America's — pollution problem is to increase energy efficiency and use renewable energy, such as wind. Next week the Current looks at energy efficiency and wind power. By using those alternatives — and forcing CPS to fully commit to them — when San Antonians flick their lightswitches or turn up the air-conditioning, they can break the chain of fossil fuels. •


The race for City Public Service to build a new coal-fired electrical plant won't be a sprint, but a marathon. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality projects that controversy over the plant could extend the approval process by an extra six to 12 months. That means next summer — and perhaps the summer after that — San Antonians could still be arguing whether another smokestack should loom on the horizon.

This step-by-step guide could help you follow the application through the state and local bureaucratic labyrinth.

♦ First, CPS must finish its permit application, which contains such mind-numbing words as "contemporaneous."

♦ After the TCEQ receives the application, the administrative division will review it to ensure that the information is complete.

♦ After the application is OK'd for completeness, CPS will publish a public notice and post the application in a public place - usually at CPS' main office, 145 Navarro St. This could happen as early as this fall.

♦ From the time the notice is published and the application is posted, the public has 30 days to comment in writing to the TCEQ; the public can also request a meeting or hearing. While several citizens recently requested a hearing - and were denied by the TCEQ- for the permit renewal for the Deely plant, hearings for new plants are usually granted. (Under state law, public comment periods can't be extended for permit renewals; a hearing on the Deely plant would have done so.)

♦ While citizens are wearing out their fax machines firing off angry - or supportive - letters to the TCEQ, the commission's technical review team analyzes the application, including CPS' estimates of pollutant releases, any technology that would affect these emissions, and the utility's compliance with state and federal environmental law. TCEQ and CPS also use modeling to project environmental and health impacts.

♦ When the technical review team finishes, a second public notice and 30-day comment period begins on the draft permit which contains the finer points of the plan. The TCEQ and CPS can schedule meetings, if the public requests them, to gather additional comments.

♦ After the meetings and comment period have ended, TCEQ will formally respond to the comments in writing. This could happen in the first half of 2004.

♦ After the final comment period, if the TCEQ determines that CPS' permit application meets state and federal regulations, it can give the go-ahead for the plant to be built and operate. Yet, since the CPS issue is so highly charged, it is likely to go to a contested case hearing.

♦ The TCEQ commissioners decide whether to have a contested hearing. A state administrative judge oversees the hearing, which is conducted similar to a trial. CPS and the environmental community will hire their lawyers, gather their witnesses, and prepare for legal fisticuffs. "It is an adversarial type of relationship," said TCEQ Air Combustion Team Leader Erik Hendrickson. "It's a very formal and long process." After listening to both sides, the judge comes up with a "finding of fact," refers that to the TCEQ, and then the commission decides what to do. The judge does not determine whether a new plant is built, and the commissioners can send the recommendation back to the judge or TCEQ officials for more information - or they can agree with the judge.

♦ Estimated approval time without contested hearing: 6-12 months. With contested hearing: 12-24 months. •



Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.