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Environmentalists urge East Central school board to challenge CPS coal plant

The East Central School District administration office sits nearly in the shadow of the smokestacks at the Calaveras Lake power plant, so it seemed the proper venue for a presentation on the health risks that the coal-burning plant may pose for children who live in the area. But members of the school district's board of trustees did little more than listen politely as Karen Haddon of the SEED Coalition and Marianne Kestenbaum of Smart Growth San Antonio spoke about health, economics, global warming, and the dangers of coal-plant by-products such as mercury, sulfur, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.

East Central Independent School District lies directly in the path of prevailing winds that could carry emissions from CPS Energy's coal-burning power plant at Calaveras Lake. Mercury, a toxic heavy metal, is a known by-product of coal-fired power plants. Citizens are concerned about the effects of the pollutant, which persists forever once it is released into the environment. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Indeed, CPS Energy had just announced that it has hired Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio to lead construction of Unit 2 of the J.K. Spruce Power plant adjacent to the existing Calaveras unit. The newest plant is slated to generate 750 megawatts of electricity for CPS Energy customers.

"Sulfur is linked to acid rain. Nitrogen oxides go deep into the lungs," Haddon told ECISD board members. "Too many people have to visit the emergency room. There is a quantifiable economic loss, a human toll."

Haddon said the new plant would release up to 140 lbs. of mercury per year into San Antonio's atmosphere. San Antonians are already exposed to the highest mercury counts in the state at San Antonio fish markets. Although predator fish, such as shark and swordfish, record the highest levels of mercury, locally caught fish such as white bass, smallmouth buffalo, longnose gar, spotted gar, and flathead catfish have tested at levels that exceed Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. Those exposure levels, combined with exposure from the coal-burning plants, could put thousands of newborn babies at risk of permanent brain damage.

"This is tragic because doctors recommend that people eat fish, because it is a good diet," says Haddon. "We need to be very serious about this. I urge you to insist on monitoring (the coal plants). There is no measure for mercury at the CPS plant at Calaveras Lake. A reduction in the pollutants is long overdue."

Kestenbaum made a pitch for CPS to develop more renewable energy sources, such as wind generators like those that already harness electricity in West Texas, and solar power. "Responsible stewardship of the natural environment is sustainable economic development. Coal-fired power plants cost more than energy-efficient and renewable sources. We pay dearly for cheap fuel."

China Grove Mayor Dennis Dunk sent a letter to ECISD Superintendent Gary Patterson in mid-July, urging the school board to demand a health-risk study before constructing any new coal-burning units at Calaveras.

"We are concerned that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and CPS Energy have not demonstrated that this facility will not be injurious to the health of the citizens and children in the immediate area, as well as the residents on China Grove," Dunk wrote. China Grove was granted party status to CPS Energy's application to build and operate the additional power plant. "For CPS Energy to ask that this permit be issued before entering into a contract to study the health issues raises real questions about CPS' due diligence on such issues."

Dunk also cited discoloration that has appeared on the metal roofing at Heritage Middle School, which lies in the pathway of prevailing winds from the current power plant. "The City of China Grove does not claim to be chemistry experts, but we can see from the proposed preliminary permit that sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are two chemical emissions from this facility, and when water is added from dew or rain, sulfuric acid can be formed."

Mayor Dunk received a reply from ECISD nearly a month later, but it came not from the superintendent but board president Steve Bryant, who also serves on the CPS Environmental and Health Oversight Committee and is the human-resources and information-systems manager for the Zachry Corporation. "While the district appreciates your offer to evaluate the roofing system at Heritage Middle School we do not feel it is necessary at this time," he wrote.

"I didn't expect a letter from a member of the board of trustees," says Dunk, who alleges a conflict of interest on Bryant's part. "I expected a letter from school officials. Heritage is the only middle school in the area, and I thought it would be wise to check it out. I don't feel it's an unreasonable request."

Dunk says China Grove has officially objected to issuance of the permit for the new plant. "CPS did not conduct a health impact study first. Don't you do the health study first, then apply for the permit?"

China Grove officials plan to attend a December hearing on the power-plant permit that CPS Energy is seeking from TCEQ. Mayor Dunk says he has requested a change of venue for the hearing, from Austin to the Calaveras Lake vicinity, so that local residents can more easily participate. "We could have the hearing in China Grove," says Dunk. "We have a new city hall and municipal courthouse, completed six months ago. They can use it free of charge."

By Michael Cary

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