Article published in the Dallas Morning News.
By RANDY LEE LOFTIS
Published: 27 August 2013 10:54 PM
Updated: 27 August 2013 11:51 PM
Expecting Dallas-based Energy Future Holdings to file bankruptcy soon,
doctors and environmentalists will try Wednesday to force pollution
cuts at the company’s oldest coal plants — either through costly
upgrades or replacement with cleaner energy sources.
The Dallas County Medical Society and several environmental groups,
backed by a Texas Medical Association resolution, said they will file
a formal petition for rulemaking that asks the Texas Commission on
Environmental Quality to tighten emissions limits on three plants
effective in 2018.
A spokesman for Luminant, EFH’s generating arm, said Tuesday that no
new rules are needed.
Doctors said they were taking the rare step of making the medical
society a formal party in state environmental proceedings to protect
public health in North Texas. They said they feared that
bankruptcy-related cost-cutting might postpone a cleanup by Luminant.
“We can’t sit back,” said Dr. Robert Haley, professor of internal
medicine and director of the Division of Epidemiology at UT
Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
The deadline would give EFH and Luminant, or a future owner, five
years to replace decades-old coal plants with other options or install
new pollution controls costing several hundred million dollars.
The doctors presented a cost and emissions analysis of several
alternatives prepared by a Rice University expert.
The TCEQ will have 60 days to decide whether it will grant or deny the
request to start writing the tougher emissions limits. The final
decision is up to the agency’s three full-time commissioners, all
appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.
Luminant, Texas’ biggest generator, will also be heard.
“In response to those wanting even more regulations, the record is
clear that existing laws and regulations are working, with Texas air
becoming cleaner,” Luminant spokesman Brad Watson said.
The three plants are operating legally and are not causing air-quality
problems, he said.
But Dr. John Carlo, Dallas County’s former chief medical officer,
chief epidemiologist and health authority, said local doctors’
experience clearly showed otherwise.
“The failure to solve air quality has been at the cost of health,”
said Carlo, now CEO of AIDS Arms Inc., a Dallas-based nonprofit that
“You can just look at the hospitalizations and asthma. The effect is
abstract — unless you’re the one experiencing it.”
The plants singled out in the doctors’ petition are Big Brown in
Freestone County, Martin Lake in Rusk County and Monticello in Titus
County. Each burns lignite coal from Texas mines, plus coal from
Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
In 2012, Big Brown and Martin Lake ranked first and second in
sulfur-dioxide emissions from Texas coal plants, according to
Environmental Protection Agency data. Sulfur dioxide is linked to
tiny, inhalable airborne particles.
Martin Lake was first in Texas in nitrogen oxides, an ingredient in
smog, and in carbon dioxide, a factor in climate change. All three
plants are among the five biggest mercury sources nationwide.
The issue comes up now because of EFH’s precarious finances. Private
equity investors created the holding company in the $45 billion buyout
of Texas power giant TXU in 2007.
Since then, Texas wholesale electricity prices have stayed depressed
and retail electric customers have left for other providers. EFH faces
a $4 billion payment on its debt this year alone.
EFH has been in talks with creditors about how to structure a possible
bankruptcy filing. Transferring ownership of Luminant to the creditors
is among the discussion items the company has acknowledged, although
no details have been available.
It’s not certain what response EFH might get to a for-sale sign on its
oldest coal plants. Other bankrupt generators have shed old plants and
come out healthier and more efficient.
A sale under a bankruptcy court’s supervision could include all assets
or just selected ones.
Martin Lake and Big Brown already face multiple attempts to force
Luminant to upgrade pollution controls. The Sierra Club is suing
Luminant in federal court over alleged emissions violations.
And on Aug. 16, the Justice Department and the EPA sued Luminant in
federal court alleging permit-rules violations.
Luminant has denied any violations.
A bankruptcy filing would stay other legal proceedings. However, the
bankruptcy court could oversee the government’s pending enforcement
Michael Friedman, a partner in the New York law firm of Richards Kibbe
& Orbe who specializes in corporate bankruptcies, said Luminant’s old
plants will produce cash for their owner if they can keep running
without upgrades. But requiring expensive environmental improvements
might change that.
“If they have no value, there will be no market,” Friedman said.
Regardless of the plants’ fate, their electricity would have to be
replaced. The doctors and their environmental allies are encouraging
the state environmental commission to consider a raft of alternative
The lowest-cost and least-polluting option would be to boost energy
efficiency enough to cover the plants’ production, said Daniel Cohan,
a Rice University associate professor of environmental engineering.
Other options are more expensive or create more emissions, Cohan said.
Luminant’s Watson rejected Cohan’s analysis.
“This isn’t a realistic plan for a growing state like Texas that must
have reliable electric generation as demand increases for power,” he
Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen, one of the groups joining the
Dallas County Medical Society in the petition, said the five-year
deadline is meant to provide plenty of time to find cleaner power
“That allows the market to plan rationally,” he said. “None of us
wants the lights to go out.”