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CPS cuts secret deal with enviros, neighbors

Robert Delgado has an obnoxious neighbor, or, more aptly, a noxious neighbor. Delgado lives adjacent to the coal-burning complex operated by CPS Energy at Calaveras Lake.

He doesn’t adamantly oppose CPS plans to build an additional $1 billion coal-burning power plant at the site, but he wants the publicly owned utility to ensure that sulfur byproducts and mercury compounds dumped into the environment aren’t going to kill him.

City Public Service Energy plans to build an additional coal-fired power plant at its existing complex at Calaveras Lake. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

On December 5, CPS negotiated a confidential settlement with environmental and citizen groups that opposed the plant. While stakeholder groups such as the SEED Coalition and Public Citizen say they are satisfied with the agreement that lets construction of the power plant—which will add an estimated 750 megawatts to the grid— proceed, it’s not clear that the secret settlement will address Delgado’s concerns.

The settlement grew out of a May 18 preliminary hearing conducted by the State Office of Administrative Hearing, during which a large number of citizens testified about how the coal plant would impact their lives. Groups that were granted standing in the hearing included SEED, Public Citizen, Jefferson Heights Neighborhood Association, and Smart Growth San Antonio. Stakeholders demanded that CPS cooperate in health studies and explorations of alternate energy-production methods.

The morning sunlight graced the West Austin hills last week, and the view from a fourth-floor hearing room in a downtown state office building illuminated the morning haze. The haze persisted as state administrative law judges Cassandra Church and Mike Rogan convened and then adjourned a second hearing on the CPS permit.

A deal was in the works, they announced, as attorneys from all sides convened behind closed doors to hammer out a secret deal to drop opposition to the permit in exchange for a more open exchange of information on the part of CPS Energy.

“CPS Energy and a number of organizations and invididuals announced today a settlement in principle of their disputes regarding the new CPS Energy Spruce 2 power plant,” read a press release issued a few hours later after the deal was rubber-stamped by the judges. “The plant had drawn opposition from some national environmental advocates because of its projected greenhouse-gas emissions and from some local citizens and groups because of other projected emissions, principally mercury.”

In exchange for the permit, CPS has promised “improved public access to environmental data and increased guarantees regarding mercury emissions.” It also will enhance its energy-conservation and renewable-energy programs, and will pay “increased attention to carbon dioxide emissions associated with future coal plants.”

CPS also promised to fund an engineering study on Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, a cleaner coal-burning technology, which is in its infancy.

Karen Hadden, executive director of the SEED Coalition, an Austin-based organization, called the CPS commitment a “step forward,” with plans to monitor mercury and to report data from its continuous-emission monitors. Previously SEED had criticized CPS for failing to develop alternative-energy sources and to measure mercury levels in fish harvested from Calaveras Lake.

Last summer, Hadden said that CPS was slow to provide environmental-impact data to the public. “I’ve asked for fish testing,” Hadden told an East Central School Board meeting. “They deny us the information.” Hadden also took issue with CPS’ refusal to explore cleaner ways to produce energy, such as IGCC, which uses fuel combos of lignite and petroleum coke, products “readily available” in Texas.

“Cleaner, more affordable options exist, and CPS should pursue energy efficiency and renewable energy in order to protect our health and our economy,” reads a statement on the SEED Coalition’s website.

Charles English, president of the Jefferson Heights Neighborhood Association, says CPS has committed to performing a health-impact study in South East San Antonio, and that he will served on an independent advisory committee.

“Outreach for weatherization opportunities will occur, and CPS Energy is expected to double its energy-efficiency programs,” English says, “and CPS will support health fairs in our community.”

Also look for additional trees to be planted on the East Side by 2007.

But Delgado is not reassured. He says that the CPS plant at Calaveras belches out huge clouds of dark smoke—not steam, or water—every 10 days or so, late at night.

“I’ve asked them to put in writing that they are hurting no one, or damaging property,” says Delgado. “Get your attorneys to draw up a document, and then I’ll support you. If you can’t do that, something’s going on.”

But Delgado believes the permit application is a done deal since the opposition has cut a deal. “I don’t think anything will slow it down, I just want to be reassured that we’re not at risk from emissions.”

By Michael Cary

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