All eyes are on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality this week as its three commissioners will decide whether to grant an air permit to a proposed $3 billion petroleum coke-fired power plant in Corpus Christi.
The Las Brisas Energy Center has been criticized by health and environmental advocates but heralded by local business and government for the jobs and tax revenue the power plant could generate. Late last year, however, a pair of administrative law judges spent two weeks examining the Las Brisas air permit and recommended that the TCEQ commissioners deny it or send it back for revisions.
In the wake of last month's decision by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to begin stripping away TCEQ's authority to issue operating permits, saying that the state's permits may be illegal and violate the Clean Air Act, Texas clean-air advocates are describing the commission's decision this week as a litmus test concerning the agency's competency.
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TCEQ's "decision could be seen as an example of why these federal actions were necessary unless the commissioners follow the recommendations of their own judges and deny Las Brisas's air permit," said Jen Powis of the Sierra Club.
Sierra Club officials say the administrative law judges found that Las Brisas's permit application did not account for several pollution sources and did not analyze the best technology to use to ensure the lowest possible amount of pollution. If approved, Las Brisas would be the first petroleum coke-fired power plant to be built near a metropolitan city since it has been known that petroleum coke causes more pollution than your everyday coal-fired plant, say clean-air advocates.
"There is so much evidence that this permit does not follow the law," said Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, "this permit should be denied. If the commissioners overrule their own hearing officers ... it proves how much they need to be reformed by the ... Texas Legislature. If they approve this permit we'd recommend abolishing the commissioners and replacing them with a rubber stamp."
Still, lawyers for the power plant have reportedly filed documents stating that TCEQ cannot legally deny the permit but must give the company a chance to fix whatever issues may exist. Las Brisas officials have said they are confident going into the hearing, which is scheduled for June 30.