In front of City Public Servic last week, a woman rolled by in her wheelchair, her mouth and nose covered with a beige face mask. A photographer put poised his camera, but then thought better of it. The woman wasn't protesting CPS' proposed new coal plant, but she could have been the opposition's poster child: a passerby trying to avoid the air pollution caused by belching car mufflers, burning brush fires, and spewing smokestacks — including those of CPS' three coal plants.

Despite the public outcry about the health and environmental risks of a new coal-fired plant æ and a communal prayer held in the CPS lobby that God "open minds of the city" and "bless those in charge" æ on June 30, the CPS board unanimously green-lighted the municipally owned utility's first steps in building a new plant.

To meet projected energy needs of the growing city - 1,500 additional megawatts within the next 10 years æ CPS contends that it needs to have another coal plant running by 2009, in addition to Spruce and Deeley Units 1 and 2, located at Calaveras Lake on the Southeast Side.

CPS Generation Planning Director Jim Nesrsta told the board that the new plant will be "state-of-the-art," meet the environmental standard of Best Available Control Technology, and emit pollution no greater than at 1997 levels.

Opponents argued that coal is an outdated, environmentally disastrous energy source, and add that 1997 levels aren't necessarily clean. Considering the sorry state of the Deeley units, which have only minimal pollution controls, and the $750 million to $1 billion price tag for a new plant, critics lobbied CPS to instead robustly invest in conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy.

Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition, an Austin environmental group with about 400 San Antonio members, castigated CPS for its lax energy efficiency. "I'm really disappointed," said Hadden, who met with CPS staff several months ago to discuss Austin's energy efficiency program that saved 500 megawatts of power æ two-thirds of what the new coal plant would generate.

"Tortured data," is what CPS Board Chairman Stephen Hennigan called the numerical deluge that rained from both camps. "There has been data manipulation on both sides to find data that supports their respective positions."

Opponents cite several studies, including one from Harvard Medical School, that estimates 93 people in San Antonio die prematurely each year because of air pollution from coal plants. CPS CEO Milton Lee said in a previous meetiing that he has never seen a study that connects coal plant emissions with health problems.

Opponents quote Texas Commission on Environmental Quality records that show the Deeley plant has exceeded the six-minute standard for particulate matter more than 6,000 times in the past three years. CPS notes that adds up to only 1 percent of its operating time.

CPS says it is spending $130 million on upgrades for existing plants, but isn't putting scrubbers to filter harmful pollutants on Deeley.

And so on.

The lack of information rather than the flood of data bothered East Side resident Robert Dawson, who supports renewable energy instead of coal. "You don't know how dirty the air is. Since we have to pay, let's pay for the best.

Joe Fulton, CPS' director of research and environmental management, promised that CPS would increase its reliance on wind power to 10 percent of its energy by 2015. CPS gets 4 percent of its energy from wind,which ranks first in Texas.

CPS' next step is to apply to the TCEQ; cost of the permit is $50,000. Meanwhile, the utility will hire an engineering consultant to develop a request for proposals for potential contractors for another $2 million. Construction would start in 2005 and take about 52 months.

CPS' Nesrsta and several board members emphasized that since this isn't "a significant amount of funds, at any point we can stop the process." Yet, considering an initial $2,050,000 outlay, and Naestrta's comment that "we'd like to get it online sooner," odds are against reversing course.

As the meeting adjourned, the thermometer on Hermann Sons building read 97 degrees, but in the spirit of energy efficiency, CPS propped open a set of front double doors, air-conditioning the sidewalk. •


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