One way to reduce dangerous pollution from Texas coal plants? Outlaw legal loopholes

Coal combustion is dirty business.

This is neither new nor surprising information.

Combustion of fossil fuels for electric generation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and coal is the worst offender.

In Texas, lax regulatory oversight and continued use of low-grade Texas lignite make our state’s coal plants among the dirtiest in the country.  For example, in 2014, Texas electric power generators emitted more sulfur dioxide—approximately 340,000 tons—than any other state’s power plants.

According to the most recent Texas data from the TCEQ, the state’s environmental agency, out of approximately 2,000 industrial plants in Texas, fully 80 percent of our state’s total sulfur dioxide emissions came from the smokestacks of just 19 coal plants. These same plants emit roughly 150 million tons of CO2 each year, more than any other state’s electric power industry emits, and more than all Texas passenger vehicles emit in a year.

The good news is that some of the most dangerous power plant air pollution is on the decline. 

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—two of the biggest contributors to smog and acid rain—have been on the decline for years, due to strong federal rules.  These rules not only force emissions down, but also require continuous monitoring and robust reporting—two important requirements that keep a spotlight on these emissions. 

Similarly, mercury emissions have received substantial regulatory attention, including the recent adoption of the federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that will force reductions and enhanced monitoring of this dangerous toxic.  And, of course, power plant greenhouse gas emissions are well monitored and finally beginning to be regulated through new and proposed rules such as EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Unfortunately, some dangerous coal plant air pollution has escaped meaningful regulatory oversight.  Case in point: particulate matter (“PM”).

PM consists of liquid and solid particles, including organic chemicals, metals, and ash. Most particle emissions in the United States result from the combustion of fossil fuels, including power plants. But, according to a number of studies, “fine” particles from coal burning are particularly dangerous to humans. Particulate matter also exacerbates global warming and rising sea levels by coating polar and non-polar ice with heat-trapping soot.

Unlike sulfur dioxide or carbon dioxide, particulate matter from coal plants is not continuously measured, even though continuous PM monitors are widely available. At most, a typical American power plant conducts a once-a-year “stack test” to measure soot emissions coming from a smokestack. 

But Texas does not require our state’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants to conduct PM stack tests. In the most egregious cases, Environmental Integrity Project found that some Texas coal plants have operated for decades without actually measuring PM emissions, or at least without making any stack test data available to TCEQ or the public.    

Despite the absence of regular monitoring and strong regulations, power companies claim to use the best available technologies to control pollution.

Take Luminant, for example, a company that operates some of the highest-polluting coal plants in Texas and in the country.  Luminant claims to have spent millions on technologies to achieve “a more than 20 percent decrease in key emissions.”

But when the Environmental Integrity Project reviewed documents detailing operations at Luminant’s plants, we found that these pollution control technologies are not only antiquated, but, even worse, they are essentially turned off for up to hundreds of hours per year. Specifically, scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators—two important pollution controls at some of the older coal plants—are not operational during periods when coal boilers are being shut down or started up, for example for routine maintenance. 

How is it possible for coal plants to feign environmental responsibility while polluting with impunity? Two words: legal loopholes. 

For years, power plants and other industries have exceeded emission limits and polluted with impunity anytime the plant claims to starting up or shutting down.

Coal companies claim that these events are trivial, because periods of startup and shutdown account for only a small fraction of a baseload coal plant’s annual hours or operation.  However, our research shows that while “startup/shutdown” may only last for around 2 percent of a coal plant’s annual operating time, a coal plant emits up to 20 percent of its PM pollution during these periods.   

In 2010, the Association of Electrical Companies of Texas, the trade association for power plants, gave the TCEQ suggested text to include in permits to authorize so-called “planned maintenance, startup, and shutdown” emissions.  TCEQ took that text, and pasted it into permits for all of the state’s large coal plants.  

Between 2011 and 2013, the TCEQ approved at least 26 coal plant air permits that allow companies to emit fine particles with virtually no limits. 

Just like that, Texas coal plants got approval to pollute for hundreds of hours each year without having to control any PM emissions.  These permits eliminated pre-existing PM limits and replaced them with new limits supposed to apply during startups and shutdowns.  These new PM limits are up to 30 times higher than the ones they replaced.  

Environmental Integrity Project and our allies are working to clamp down on coal plant PM pollution and close startup/shutdown loopholes.  Over the past 10 years, we have tracked and reported on states’ startup/shutdown rules, and we have investigated and reported on Texas companies’ unauthorized startup/shutdown emissions. As a result, we have improved state law and forced both Texas and EPA to adopt new and better startup/shutdown rules.

Power plant mercury and greenhouse gases deserve the regulatory scrutiny that they are deservedly getting. By shining a spotlight on particulate matter and on excessive startup/shutdown emissions of this dangerous pollutant, we open up additional avenues to clean up coal plants and to protect our health and that of our planet.  


Ilan Levin is associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project. Previously, he practiced environmental law, litigating water issues on behalf of landowners and conversation groups. He has also played a key role in developing and drafting Texas anti-pollution laws. Ilan has a B.A. and a J.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. Ilan may be contacted at For more information, visit or follow EIP on Twitter @EIPOnline.




The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Achieving a Sustainable Texas," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. 

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