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East Texas Coal Plants Viewed as Major Health Threat

The Sierra Club, an environmental activist group, has launched a major campaign to shut down three coal-fired power plants in East Texas, saying that their production of mercury and other pollutants is having a hugely negative impact on people’s health and the climate in the region. The three plants in question—Big Brown in Freestone County, Martin Lake in Rusk County and Monticello in Titus County—all burn lignite, a particularly dirty type of coal, making them even worse polluters than other coal-burning plants.

All three plants are owned by Energy Future Holdings’ Luminant branch; coal-power accounts for a shocking 70% of the company’s energy production. The fact that these three plants are major polluters is not new news—just last July, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent notice to Luminant that they had violated the Clean Air Act at both Big Brown and Martin Lake; according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the plants account for as much as 2% of Dallas’ ozone levels at a time when the city is struggling to comply with federal ozone standards. Additionally, a 2011 study by the Environmental Integrity Project found that four of the top five mercury-emitting power plants in the country belong to Luminant. Mercury is a toxin that can harm the brain.

As part of their campaign, the Sierra Club has filed two lawsuits against Luminant and has made a major push to get Texans to stop using TXU Energy as their power provider (TXU is owned by Energy Future Holdings). Success in their campaign may be easier than the Club anticipates—coal power is already being replaced by cheaper natural gas (although gas extraction through fracking takes a toll on the environment and public health as well). Even as the Sierra Club attempts to completely shut down the coal plants, two of three units at the Monticello location are already powered down until June because of economic reasons. Also helping the cause is the fact that the E.P.A. may soon put new restrictions on sulfur dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, which would place coal-burning plants in a precarious legal position.