Four Luminant coal-burning power plants in East Texas, including one in Tatum, have made an environmental group’s national top 10 list for power plants that emit the most mercury.
The Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group focused on environmental enforcement, released the report Jan. 3.
The release of mercury, toxic metals and acid gases has been cut in the past decade, but some plants’ emissions still can pose a health risk, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.
The first of the 10 largest sources of power plant mercury emissions in 2011 includes five Texas plants, four of which — Martin Lake in Rusk County, Big Brown in Freestone County, Monticello in Titus County and Sandow in Milam County — are owned and operated by Luminant.
The 10 facilities made up about 18 percent of mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants nationwide in 2011, according to a news release.
Martin Lake in Tatum is listed as the highest emitter in the report, with more than 1,500 pounds of mercury released into the air in 2011.
“I think the main takeaway from our report is that some power plants and some electric power companies are doing little or nothing to clean up toxic air pollution from their smoke stacks …” Environmental Integrity Project attorney Ilan Levin said last week. “We can clean this stuff up, and companies like Luminant are just not putting in the effort.”
He said the emissions can deposit mercury and other toxic metals into water, which in turn affects fish and ultimately makes its way up the food chain to people.
However, Ms. Barrie said Luminant’s power plants are not only in compliance but “well below” their permitted level of mercury emissions.
She said via email that each unit at each of Luminant’s coal-fueled power plants has its own permit. For instance, Martin Lake, which has three units, is permitted to emit up to 2.4 tons per year, she said. In 2011, the plant emitted a total of 0.75 tons — 69 percent below the permitted limit.
By installing this equipment and making other operational changes, Luminant has cut fleetwide mercury emissions by more than 20 percent since 2005, she said.
Ms. Barrie said she expects Luminant’s final fleetwide mercury numbers for 2012 to come in somewhere in the 4,500-pound range, which represents the 20 percent reduction from 2005, when fleetwide mercury emissions were about 5,800 pounds.
Ms. Barrie said Luminant continued to make investments, including $300 million in emission control equipment across its fleet — $80 million at Martin Lake — which will further reduce
mercury and sulfur dioxide.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokeswoman Lisa Wheeler said via email that the Environmental Protection Agency recently adopted the Mercury and Air Toxics rule to control hazardous air pollutants, including mercury, and existing power plants subject to the rule have until April 16, 2015, to comply.
The rule contains two mercury standards for existing plants, depending upon the type of coal that is used as fuel, said Terry Clawson, with TCEQ.
He said power plants that burn lignite must meet these limits: mercury 4 pounds per tera or trillion British thermal units, which measures the amount of heat input (fuel fired), or 0.04 pounds per giga or billion watt hours, which is the amount of electricity produced in an hour.
For power plants that burn other types of coal, such as bituminous, sub-bituminous and anthracite, the mercury limit is 1.2 pounds per tera or trillion British thermal unit. or 0.013 pounds per giga or billion watt hours.
“Studies show that the contribution from these power plants is minimal, relative to the massive contribution from other parts of the world,” she said. “These results indicate that if all the coal-fired plants in Texas were inactive, the levels of mercury deposition, and, more importantly, the levels of methyl mercury in fish in Texas would not significantly change.”
She added that emissions also do not impact the quality of drinking water.
However, municipal water supplies are closely monitored for drinking water quality and residents receive an annual report on their drinking water quality from their supplier.
Jonathan Gray, captain of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department environmental crimes unit, said the department will sometimes be brought into an investigation if there are allegations of criminal activity, but it hasn’t conducted any specific investigations in regard to emissions at power plants.
While there are concerns, Levin said the good news is that there are some rules on the books that are long overdue that will reduce emissions from coal-fired plants.
He said power plants also have a lot of options and can look around the country and see what other power plants have done, such as different kinds of equipment or more efficient operations.
“There are a number of ways they can cut down the mercury emission, and we expect that to happen. … Our hope is that the federal air pollution rules force them to make the reductions we know they can make,” he said.