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EPA backs off pollution rule; local officials praise decision

By Glenn Evans
Dec. 3, 2016 at 10:16 p.m.

The U.S. Environment Protection Agency plans to withdraw a pollution rule that would require seven coal-fired power plants in Texas to reduce pollutants coming from their stacks.

The U.S. Environment Protection Agency's plan to withdraw a pollution rule that would require seven coal-fired power plants in Texas to reduce pollutants coming from their stacks was being welcomed last week by local air quality officials.

"(Our) position always has been that we would rather have private industry come up with solutions for emissions rather than have the federal government tell us what to do," said Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt, co-chairman of the five-county North East Texas Air Care coalition. "This will allow us to have more time to do that."

The federal environment agency said Tuesday that it was pulling back on the Regional Haze Rule. The federal regulator issued the rule under the Clean Air Act in January 2015 to reduce so-called particulate pollutants, the microscopic particles that comprise haze, that drift into national parks and wilderness areas.

The rule was separate from the greenhouse gas-targeting Clean Power Plan and the cross-state air pollution rule, both of which deal with ozone, or ground level smog.

"They were trying to protect visibility in these pristine areas," air coalition attorney Jim Mathews said of the haze rule. "They are going to go back to the drawing board and try to write another one."

The haze rule, like the cross-state ozone rule and the Clean Power Plan, most severely targeted power plants and other industrial facilities that rely on coal. Several plant operators went to court to block the rule, arguing the required upgrades could force some to shut down and create shortages of electricity in Texas.

That included three Luminant coal-fired facilities in Northeast Texas: Martin Lake in Tatum, Monticello in Mount Pleasant and Big Brown in Fairfield.

In a status report to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals filed Monday in New Orleans, the EPA announced its intention to "remand" the rule. In legal and other definitions, something is remanded when it is returned to its site of origin for further review or reformulation.

EPA communications officers in Dallas and Washington declined to specify what the environmental agency intends to do, if anything, with the haze rule.

A spokeswoman for Luminant, which owns the coal-fired power plant at Martin Creek Lake, declined to comment until the EPA has filed a formal motion to remand.

"Until we are able to see what the motion says and what the EPA is specifically requesting, we are not able to comment," spokeswoman Meranda Cohn wrote in an email.

Last week's action is part of a legal fight Texas joined in March after the EPA accepted part of the state's proposal for how it would comply with Clean Air Act rules but had rejected the section relating to haze.

The EPA asked the New Orleans appeals court to dismiss the lawsuit, but that motion was denied in July. The status report says parties on both sides then entered settlement discussions leading to last week's announcement.

Environmental advocates said they expected the EPA to rework and resubmit the rule, but its future is uncertain as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office.

Trump has pledged to support the coal industry and undo regulations adopted under President Barack Obama that some say threaten it.

Environmental advocates said the EPA's move represents a setback to efforts to reduce air pollution in Texas. For years, Texas and the EPA have battled over whether the state or federal government should set air standards. Texas developed its own plan to manage air quality, but the EPA in 2014 said it did not go far enough in reducing pollution and imposed a regional power plant rule.

The EPA's pollution plan would have cut 200,000 tons per year of sulfur dioxide emitted into the air in Texas, according to the Sierra Club, a national environmental advocacy group.

The other power plants affected are Coleto Creek southeast of San Antonio and soon to be owned by the Houston-based energy company Dynegy, and Limestone, which is between Dallas and Houston and owned by NRG Energy.

One West Texas power plant on the list, Tolk, is south of Amarillo and owned by Xcel Energy.

With the new presidential administration promising a lighter touch on environmental and other regulations, Stoudt said he was confident environmental and other regulations will fall away.

"You'll see more and more of it since the presidential election," he said. "People in this and other parts of the country are tired of the federal government coming in to our local communities and telling us what to do."

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