Fault lines

(Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Crowd divided at power plant hearing

Last week, the Metropolitan Partnership for Energy, a city- and county-funded organization, sponsored an energy summit downtown, where the buzz was about technological breakthroughs that allow us to keep the air clean - through green building, conservation, and efficiency - without having to turn off the lights.

Meanwhile, on Thursday night, at the East Central High School cafeteria, City Public Service and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality held a public meeting about the proposed new, $1 billion, 750-megawatt power plant, which will use coal, a dirty fossil fuel.

The contradiction between the two events illustrates the division not only in San Antonio, but nationally, over how cities should meet their energy needs. Yet at the CPS hearing other fault lines emerged, pitting the environmental community against business interests, Austin versus San Antonio, SEED against CEED.

"I don't want people from other communities telling us how to run our community," said Marty Wender, former chairman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, alluding to the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, SEED, which for the past 18 months has co-led the charge against the power plant. The group, which reportedly has 525 San Antonio members, has asked for a contested case hearing on the plant, possibly postponing the project or eliminating it altogether. "People who want a delay want to kill it `the power plant.`. If you want to kill San Antonio, cut off our power."

To emphasize the need for the new plant, Wender cited the rolling blackouts in California, yet did not mention that a federal investigation concluded that the Houston, Texas energy company, Enron, was implicated in the crisis by manipulating the market.

Shortly after Wender criticized the SEED Coalition for butting into San Antonio's affairs, Randy Eminger of the Virginia-based Center for Energy and Economic Development, CEED, lauded the benefits of coal to state and city officials, and downplayed the effects of mercury on local citizens. The new plant is estimated to release about 140 pounds of mercury into the air annually, although CPS officials claim it will not significantly add to the current mercury emissions - about 700 pounds annually - from the existing coal-fired power plants.

"Mercury travels thousands of miles," said Eminger, who traveled to San Antonio from CEED's regional office in Amarillo. "Sixty-six percent of mercury in the U.S. comes from foreign countries."

He added that "we don't want to scare people from eating fish," because of the health benefits of consuming omega-3 fatty acids, which are present in fish.

Yet Eminger didn't mention that the Texas Department of Health has issued fish consumption advisories in 11 counties because of mercury pollution; nor did he disclose that CEED is largely funded by Peabody Energy, which touts itself as "the world's largest coal company"; CSX railroad, responsible for transporting much of the nation's coal; and various utility companies.

Various Chambers of Commerce, the San Antonio Manufacturers Association, and IBEW Local 500, which represents 1,300 CPS workers, supported the energy plan and coal plant as key to economic growth and job stability.

Michael Austin, a Monte Vista neighborhood resident, referred to Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu's Art of War in his endorsement of the plant: "We have to know our strengths and weaknesses. Coal is plentiful and cheap. It may not be perfect, but it seems to be the best."

Coal is abundant; the U.S. supply is estimated to last 230 more years. However, several plant opponents pointed out that if coal, like many fossil fuels, did not receive federal subsidies, the price would be higher. Nor does the price reflect the environmental damage due to mining, transportation, coal-combustion waste, or health effects on communities and miners.

Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition agreed that "it's important for power to work and be available, but it's absolutely wrong to build the plant and compromise the health of the community."

Plant opponents also asked the TCEQ to fully consider the impacts of carbon dioxide emissions, a primary component in greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Chris Brown of Smart Growth San Antonio encouraged CPS to explore methods of containing carbon dioxide, including "catch and storage," which captures the gas and reinjects it beneath the ground. Carbon dioxide containment technology is not included in CPS' cost estimate for the plant, nor is it part of the utility's draft permit.

"To say this plant is the cleanest in the nation doesn't matter," added Luke Metzger of the Texas Public Interest Research Group, which is also based in Austin and has San Antonio members. "Coal is a dirty source of energy. It's like saying Saddam Hussein has good table manners."

By Lisa Sorg

To read previous stories about this issue, see "The toll of coal," August 7-13, 2003 and "Who's got the power?" December 2-8, 2004.

To request a CD copy of the December 16 meeting or the TCEQ's response to comments, available on January 16:

Public information office
c/o Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 13087
Austin, TX 78711-3087

To request a contested case hearing:

Office of the Chief Clerk
c/o TCEQ
Address same as above


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