Pollution from trains complicates coal plan
Locomotive trains hauling coal to a slew of proposed new power plants in North Texas would emit enough pollution that local leaders may have to consider more drastic measures than already planned to meet federal ozone regulations, a state analysis concludes.
TXU Corp. and energy industry advocates insist that the coal-fired power plants planned to be built in East and Central Texas would be clean, and would not have much effect on the air quality in Dallas-Fort Worth.
But a state analysis concluded that the trains that would haul tons of Powder River basin coal from Wyoming to the plants each day would discharge about 2.6 tons of ozone-forming pollutants as they pass through the heart of Tarrant and Johnson counties.
That’s nearly as much as the 2.8 tons a day that regional leaders have committed to cut in an effort to bring the Dallas-Fort Worth area into compliance with federal ozone standards by 2010. The plan was to accomplish that mostly by promoting light rail and carpooling, and capping emissions from cement kilns in Ellis County.
The effects of the diesel trains could overwhelm those efforts, said Mike Eastland, executive director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a regional planning group that has coordinated local efforts to fight ozone.
“It would wipe out what we were going to do to fight ozone from a local standpoint,” Eastland said.
That means regional leaders may be forced to consider stricter air-quality measures that would place a greater burden on local motorists and businesses. Though no decisions have been made, ideas discussed have included restricting driving during peak traffic hours, and banning drive-through windows at banks and fast-food restaurants during ozone season.
“Somewhere you’ve got to make up the difference,” Eastland said.
A separate study by the Regional Transportation Council looked at the estimated pollution from locomotives transporting coal to nine of the 11 proposed TXU power plants. It found that those trains would emit 1.4 tons a day of ozone-forming pollutants in the Metroplex.
The train emissions appear to highlight a loophole in the state permitting process for new power plants. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality only considers pollution from an individual power plant when deciding whether to approve its construction. The energy companies, state regulators say, are not required to provide information on outside pollution sources associated with the plants, such as train emissions.
The state commission on environmental quality and the regional transportation council studied the train emissions only after both were asked to do so by state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth.
“These studies are one of the most damning things I’ve seen about these proposed plants,” Burnam said.
Energy industry officials downplayed the significance of the train emissions, saying the power plants would not go into service until after the 2010 compliance deadline. They could affect how long the region stays in compliance, though.
Industry representatives also say that the Powder River basin coal that would be hauled to the new plants would burn cleaner than the lignite coal used at most of the state’s existing coal-fired plants.
“The number the state has come up with is not, frankly, a high number,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry trade group. “In addition, there are a number of federal policies in place that in the coming years are designed to reduce emissions from cars and trains, so I challenge the notion there will be an increase in ozone-forming emissions even if the train traffic increases.”
Concerns about the coal trains come as plans for the new power plants are under intense scrutiny. Several lawsuits have been filed against the commission on environmental quality and Gov. Rick Perry for his decision to expedite the permitting process for new plants. Proposed permits for six TXU plants have been challenged, and hearings before a state administrative law judge are scheduled for next month.
“This certainly paints an even gloomier picture of what Texas’ air quality is going to look like if these plants are built,” said Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, who has helped organize opposition to TXU’s proposed power plants. “TXU has said repeatedly that the plants won’t impact the DFW area. Now we see a dramatic impact.”
The environmental commission’s study was conducted last fall and is based on rough estimates of the numbers of trains moving coal through the region each day.
Glenn Shankle, executive director of the state commission, said in a letter to Burnam that the commission “does not have specific data on the actual locomotive traffic” that would be produced by all 16 power plants proposed.
The second study, by the Regional Transportation Council, was completed this month, and it includes specific information on the number of trains, their precise routes and the amounts of coal to be hauled. The regional council worked with TXU and Burlington Northern Santa Fe to get the information.
The council chose to study the nine TXU plants because they would burn Powder River basin coal, which would have to be shipped from Wyoming through Tarrant and Johnson counties.
The regional council concluded that the railcars to the TXU plants would emit about 1.4 tons per day of ozone-forming pollutants.
Cynthia White, a Denton County commissioner who chairs the Regional Transportation Council, said that number “surprised me a little bit.”
“It’s a pretty big number,” she said.
IN THE KNOW
The federal government regulates ozone because it is a health concern.
At high enough concentrations, ozone can trigger asthma attacks, stunt lung development in children and aggravate bronchitis, emphysema and other respiratory ailments.
The federal government has placed nine counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in a regional ozone violation zone: Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Johnson, Kaufman, Parker, Rockwall and Tarrant.
Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, needs lots of sunlight and heat to form. Ozone season in Dallas-Fort Worth runs from May through October.
Ozone is produced when nitrogen oxides mix with volatile organic compounds. The nitrogen oxides and organic compounds come mostly from automobile exhaust and industry smokestacks. Trees also produce the organic compounds as part of photosynthesis.
SOURCE: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Massive diesel locomotives — which would be used to haul coal to fuel more than a dozen proposed power plants — are major emitters of nitrogen oxides, a key manmade component in ozone formation.
The state estimates that 73 percent of the ozone-producing emissions in Dallas-Fort Worth come from cars and trucks, off-road construction equipment, airplanes and train engines.
A state program that helps pay to retrofit engines with pollution controls has succeeded in reducing pollution from trains. But those savings would be offset by the additional train traffic and congestion.
Most, if not all, of the trains would pass through the Fort Worth railroad control area known as Tower 55, already one of the busiest rail intersections in the country.
The Regional Transportation Council analysis estimates that the additional train traffic created by the nine power plants would significantly increase idling time for all trains passing through Tower 55.
SOURCES: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; Regional Transportation Council