Texas coal plants lack life-saving pollution controls

EPA action could force plants to clean up or shut down

Clean air

W.A. Parish power plant, Thompsons, Texas

Eighty-five percent of Texas’ coal-burning plants lack at least one modern pollution control, according to a May Sierra Club report. Coal plants contribute to the deaths of hundreds of Texans each year, but pending proposals by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could force the companies that run these facilities to either install pollution controls or shut down the plants.

Texas is by far the largest consumer of coal in the nation. Out of the 10 dirtiest power plants in the nation, three of them– NRG’s W.A. Parish and Luminant’s Martin Lake and Oak Grove plants – are located in Texas. 

Coal plant pollution takes a big toll on our health and environment. An estimated 303 Texans have their lives cut short due to exposure from soot pollution from coal plants every year. Soot also contributes to haze in our national parks, marring scenic vistas and further harming health. State officials warn against eating fish from more than two dozen waterways in Texas because of mercury contamination (which comes in part from coal plants).  

Source: Clear Air Task Force interactive map

While Texas once had 20 coal power plants, the poor economics of coal (fueled by the low cost of renewables and methane gas) and community organizing have led facility owners to retire seven plants in the last five years. Another five plan to shut down or switch to methane gas* in the coming years. However the remaining eight power plants have no plans to retire and 6 of those are missing some or all of three critical pollution control technologies.   

*Switching to gas as a fuel source should result in less smog and soot pollution, but because of methane leaks in gas production and distribution, it’s less clear there is a climate benefit. 

Pollution controls, when consistently operated, can considerably reduce the level of emissions from coal combustion. Technologies include flue-gas desulfurization (FGD), also known as “scrubbers,” to control sulfur dioxide (SO2); selective catalytic reduction (SCR) to control nitrogen oxide (NOx), and a baghouse (BH) to control direct particular matter (PM2.5) emissions. Unfortunately, only 5 of the 28 units at Texas coal plants today utilize all three of these technologies, and some units have none of them. It’s estimated that units lacking controls are up to three times as deadly as those that utilize them.

However, the EPA is currently considering the following rules which could require power plants to install pollution controls:

  • Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Mercury is so potent that even a fraction of an ounce can contaminate waterways and make fish unsafe to eat – yet we still allow coal-fired power plants to pump mercury into our air, and it then settles into nearby rivers and lakes. Once there, it can poison fish and the people who eat them. The EPA is required by the Clean Air Act to update the MATS every eight years to consider improvements to pollution control technology. Under an updated MATS rule, impacted units could need to at least upgrade existing particulate controls and potentially install a baghouse if it doesn’t already have one.
  • Smog standards. In September 2022, the EPA downgraded the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth regions to “severe” nonattainment of the 2008 federal ozone pollution standards (they were each previously designated a step below — with “serious” nonattainment). This requires the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to impose “reasonably available control technology” or “RACT”-based limits on large sources of ozone precursor pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOX). “Selective catalytic reduction” (SCR) is such a technology and environmental advocates are calling for EPA to require it for the 13 units of Texas coal plants that lack it.
  • Sulfur dioxide standards. In 2016, the EPA designated the area around the Martin Lake plant, owned by power company Luminant, as being in nonattainment for sulfur dioxide (SO2). Both Luminant and the TCEQ have challenged that designation in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. While a court ruling is pending, in July, the EPA reached a settlement with the Sierra Club to either approve a (weak) plan developed by Texas to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution from Martin Lake or issue its own plan no later than Dec. 31, 2024. Although Martin Lake has scrubbers on all 4 of its units, they operate at just 50-60% SO2 removal efficiency. Well-optimized scrubbers can operate at 98% efficiency or higher, which a strong federal plan could require. 
  • Regional haze. On April 19, the EPA proposed a rule to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from the Martin Lake and W.A. Parish power plants (as well as the Fayette, Harrington, Coleto Creek and J. Robert Welsh plants, but those are already slated to retire or convert to methane gas). If finalized and upheld, the rule would require the Parish plant to install scrubbers at all their units and Martin Lake to optimize uses of its existing scrubbers or for those plants to switch to methane gas as a fuel.
  • Carbon pollution. Proposed EPA limits of carbon pollution from power plants could lead power plants to install carbon capture technology or switch fuels to green hydrogen.

The proposed “Good Neighbor” plan to reduce smog would have also required pollution controls, but the Texas Attorney General’s office sued and won a stay on implementation of the rule in Texas.

Power companies will need to decide whether to invest in pollution controls or just retire their emissions-spewing facilities. With the boom in solar and wind energy and battery storage in Texas, we have abundant clean energy technologies to replace them and power the state.

Strong implementation of these rules provides an opportunity to effectively mitigate the pollution spewing onto our planet and people, bringing cleaner air to Texas and beyond. 

Source: Sierra Club


Gwendolyn Reed

Communications Intern

Luke Metzger

Executive Director, Environment Texas Research & Policy Center

As the director of Environment Texas, Luke is a leading voice in the state for clean air, clean water, clean energy and open space. Luke has led successful campaigns to win permanent protection for the Christmas Mountains of Big Bend; to compel Exxon, Shell and Chevron Phillips to cut air pollution at three Texas refineries and chemical plants; and to boost funding for water conservation and state parks. The San Antonio Current has called Luke "long one of the most energetic and dedicated defenders of environmental issues in the state." He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside, received the President's Award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society for his work to protect Texas parks, and was chosen for the inaugural class of "Next Generation Fellows" by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at UT Austin. Luke, his wife, son and daughter are working to visit every state park in Texas.

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