Mercury Safeguards for Texas Coal Plants Finally

by Ryan Rittenhouse

January 3, 2012

After more than twenty years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally introduced safeguards against mercury and other air toxins from industrial sources like coal plants. In Texas, coal plants are responsible for over 70% of annual mercury emissions. This rule is decades overdue, but it means that some of the country’s dirtiest industries will finally have to clean up their act.

There’s a lot of talk in Texas about how awful the EPA is. If you believed Rick Perry and his industry buddies, you’d think the sole mission of that agency is to destroy jobs particularly Texas jobs. Because, as we all know, the EPA hates Texas and Texans. That’s the only thing that makes sense. The big, evil, federal government just has it out for us and wants to see us suffer.

If you believe that, I have a bridge in Nacogdoches to sell you.

Coal plants pollute. This should not be news to anyone. They are just about the most polluting invention we’ve ever come up with. In a sane world we would have always held these polluters accountable for their emissions. After all, that pollution causes damage – and I’m not just talking about some polar bears floating on icebergs in the Arctic, I’m talking about us.

We humans right here in Texas have subsidized the irresponsible behavior of the coal industry for over a century by sacrificing the cleanliness of our water, our air, and the lungs of our children. These coal companies have made massive profits off of coal power by externalizing the cost of their business on all of us. The National Research Council estimates that the health costs of the SO2, NOx, and PM emissions alone from the country’s coal-fired facilities cost us approximately $62 billion a year, or $156 million on average per plant. But the coal company doesn’t have to pay that cost, nor do they charge us for it on our electric bill every month. It is hidden, externalized, and if we were to ever hold the coal companies accountable for these costs the only argument they have (that coal is “cheap” in relation to renewables) would be completely indefensible.

The Texas energy company Luminant is blaming the EPA for the planned closure of units 1 and 2 of its Monticello plant, even though Luminant was already shown by financial analyst Tom Sanzillo to be in dire economic straits, and that the company would likely have to close many of its coal plants because of it. Instead, in true coal-industry fashion, they are attempting to scapegoat EPA and avoid responsibility.

Responsibility and accountability are what “regulation” is all about. If done properly it is about ensuring that a select group of special interests do not profit excessively by exploiting others, which is exactly what has been going on for decades. Mercury contamination in Texas has led to consumption advisories for at least 13 of our lakes and rivers, as well as the entire Texas Gulf Coast.

Texas water bodies with Mercury in Bass.

Top Mercury emitting power plants in Texas.

Texas leads the nation in mercury emissions from coal plants. Six of the top ten mercury-emitting coal plants are in Texas, and the coal plant owned by the City of Austin and LCRA, the Fayette Coal Plant, is in the top 50. That plant has already been shown to cause groundwater contamination from its coal ash waste, and it is estimated that the air pollution from Fayette contributes to about 37 premature deaths every year. The sulfur emissions from that plant have killed thousands of pecan trees throughout the region, ruining the livelihood and way of life for hundreds of multi-generational pecan farmers. The City of Austin has already expressed its desire to get rid of this dirty polluter as the entire city council has already signed a pledge to move beyond coal.

It is time for Texas to stop ignoring the effects these facilities have on us all and to commend, instead of condemn, the EPA’s efforts to hold them accountable. Please lend your voice of support to EPA and President Obama on their recent implementation of these important new safeguards.

For more information on the fight against the Fayette coal plant visit

Cross-posted from

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