Air Pollution:

Air Quality and Permitting of New Coal-Burning, Electricity-Generating Units in Central Texas

GAO-09-787R: Published: Aug 4, 2009. Publicly Released: Aug 4, 2009.

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John B. Stephenson
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Burning coal generates about 50 percent of the nation's electricity and produces air pollution that can pose a significant threat to human health and ecosystems. The Department of Energy (DOE) predicts that demand for electricity will increase nationally by 26 percent between 2007 and 2030, and DOE's Energy Information Administration projects that Texas's electricity demand will steadily increase through 2030. This increasing demand for electricity in Texas has in recent years led to proposals for 33 new coal-burning, electricity-generating units across the state. The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish national ambient air quality standards for six pollutants to protect public health and welfare. These six pollutants, also known as criteria pollutants, are carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides, particulate matter, ozone, and lead. In Texas, ozone is the criteria pollutant of primary concern. States are primarily responsible for ensuring attainment and maintenance of national ambient air quality standards once EPA has established them. States submit state implementation plans to EPA for approval that provide for the attainment and maintenance of air quality standards. If the state fails to submit this plan, submits an inadequate plan, or fails to implement any requirement of the plan, the state could face ineligibility for federal highway funding and may also lose authority to implement Clean Air Act programs. Under the act, the plans include stricter pollution control measures for areas not meeting the national ambient air quality standards, known as nonattainment areas. Steps that states and local governments are required to take under the act to control ozone pollution in nonattainment areas can include strict emission controls on new, modified, and existing industrial facilities; additional planning requirements for transportation sources; and vehicle emissions inspection programs. Once EPA approves a plan, states are generally responsible for implementing the New Source Review and Prevention of Significant Deterioration provisions of the Clean Air Act. When new major sources of air pollution, such as power plants, are proposed, they must undergo New Source Review and, in areas that meet national air quality standards, a Prevention of Significant Deterioration review. New Source Review entails reviewing applications for the proposed power plants to establish emission limits and ensure they utilize appropriate air pollution control technologies. A Prevention of Significant Deterioration review ensures that the emissions from the source will not exceed maximum allowable increases for three of the criteria pollutants--nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides, and particulate matter--and that the source will not cause or contribute to a violation of the national air quality standards. Additionally, states generally issue permits for power plants under the Clean Air Act. In Texas, a Prevention of Significant Deterioration permit is issued prior to construction of a power plant and an operating permit shortly before it begins operation. In this report, the term permit refers to the Prevention of Significant Deterioration permit unless stated otherwise. We prepared this report in response to a congressional directive in the Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008. This report provides information on (1) the current status of permitting coal-burning, electricity-generating units in Central Texas; (2) the process EPA and Texas use, under the Clean Air Act, to review permit applications for proposed new major sources of air pollution; and (3) what is known about air quality and respiratory health in Central Texas.

When EPA approved Texas's state implementation plan--a plan for attaining and maintaining national air quality standards--the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), became responsible for reviewing permit applications and issuing permits for proposed new major sources of air pollution. EPA retains oversight to ensure TCEQ adheres to its state implementation plan permit procedures. Regarding EPA's oversight of TCEQ's permitting procedures for new major sources, EPA attempts to resolve any differences with TCEQ related to EPA's review of these permit applications or draft permits before a permit is issued. Additionally, when EPA commented on the draft permits in November 2006, it said it had difficulty evaluating the air quality analyses of the individual permit applications because TCEQ had deemed the applications as complete at the same time and had not assigned a sequential order to them. Current data from TCEQ's air quality monitoring network show Central Texas meets national air quality standards for all six criteria pollutants. However, monitoring data also show ozone concentrations in the region are close to exceeding the new EPA 2008 national ozone standard. Regarding respiratory health in Central Texas, the most recent data available show mortality rates from most respiratory illnesses are slightly higher for the region than for the entire state or the nation as a whole.

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