DICK DWELLE: A Conversation Long Overdue
Published: November 17, 2006 11:41 am

By Dick Dwelle

A handful of people in Athens and the surrounding area are addressing a problem that should have had the entire community’s attention years and years ago.

It is pollution that comes mostly from coal-burning electric-generating power plants in Texas.

We in Henderson County are surrounded by them. TXU plans to construct a new one at the Big Brown Station outside Fairfield in adjoining Freestone County. There are two plants in operation at Big Brown now. They have been there for many years.

Unfortunately for us, Big Brown ranked sixth in 2004 in the United States among coal-burning power plants in its emissions of mercury. Add to this that in the summer months our prevailing winds, 68 percent of the time, are from the southwest, the direction in which Big Brown is located from us. The nation’s No. 1 plant for mercury emissions that year was TXU’s Martin Lake Station and No. 4 was TXU’s Monticello Station.

One of my regrets is that as owner, along with other family members, of the Review for many years we failed to recognize the possible hazard this plant and all other coal-burning plants pose to the environment. We could have brought this to the attention of the public years ago.

TXU has filed with the state for a permit to build a new unit at Big Brown. This request is being considered along with seven others that have been placed on a fast track for permitting. Instead of providing the public with about 18 months to study possible effects and express opinions, the period of time prior to permitting is expected to be substantially reduced. Permits for the eight new power plants that are on the fast track to permitting are likely to be issued in the coming spring.

The small group in this county that is addressing the permit issue is the East Texas Environmental Concerns Organization (ETECO). They invite any and everyone concerned about the effect a new plant at Big Brown and other new coal-burning plants in Texas will have to join them. They want to get emissions that owners of the new plants have requested reduced substantially prior to the issuance of permits.

Mercury is only one of the emissions that are harmful. Others destroy the ozone. Some are particles that affect breathing. There are others, as well. All are harmful.

Texas power plants produce an estimated one-third of the pollution the state contributes to global warming. With the proposed new plants, this figure is expected to rise from 33 percent to over 43 percent.

There are many plants in the U.S. where coal is turned into gas which is used to fuel plants. They have operated successfully and dependably for years. Pollution is radically reduced. The difference in the cost of a plant plus operating it is not great. But it does cost more. TXU refuses to build plants using coal gasification. State agencies do little, if anything, to encourage utilities to use the cleaner process. Thus, the public needs to make every effort it can to get the amount of allowable emissions from new coal-burning plants reduced before the plant receives its permit.

When mercury gets into lakes, it affects the fish. The amount people should consume of two species of fish from five East Texas lakes is already limited: for adults, two servings a month of eight ounces of largemouth bass or drum, and for children, two servings of four ounces each in a month. These lakes are Big Cypress Creek and Caddo Lake to our northeast, and southeast of us Sam Rayburn Reservoir, Toledo Bend Reservoir and B.A. Steinhagan Reservoir

Advisories are issued by the Seafood and Aquatic Life Group Texas Department of State Health Advisories. Five other Texas lakes are listed for some fish as well as mackerel from the entire Gulf of Mexico, and all fish and crabs from the Upper Lavaca Bay.

What lake or lakes will be added to the above in years to come as emissions are increased when 19 new power plants are on line? Requests have been made to build this number of new ones in Texas with eight of them to be permitted after only a minimal time for hearings.

The hearing for Big Brown will take place Nov. 28 in the high school auditorium at 10 a.m. in Fairfield.

The matter of pollution from power plants may not be a problem for some of you today. I assure you it will be a huge problem in years to come for you, your children and their children. The pollution builds up. Mercury doesn’t go away.

When will people in this county be advised they should limit the amount they should consume of a certain kind of fish taken from one or more of our lakes or ponds? Unfortunately, Texas does not have a planned program for testing lakes. In Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, the state tests all lakes annually. Among those opposing regular testing in Texas are some of the electric utility companies.

What about the effect on the water and on the fish in Lake Athens, home of the Texas Fresh Water Fisheries Center where millions of bass fingerlings are raised each year for distribution to public lakes in our state?

Who should be interested in this matter? I feel that every person who calls Henderson County home should. One would think the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department that operates the fish hatchery at the Fisheries Center would want to be informed each year on the condition of the water it is using from Lake Athens.

Among our residents, there is a group of people who can do more than any other about this problem if they will only become involved. They are our elected officials. They are elected to protect us from everything else. Why not this? Elected city and county officials are among those we should be able to turn to for leadership, research and help of every nature in connection with our health.

The federal government is helping minimally. The State of Texas’ elected officials show little concern as a whole and agencies are, for the most part, idle about improving existing regulations or adopting new guidelines to limit future problems.

We nearly always have to ask ourselves the question, “Who cares the most and who ends up having to solve the problem?”

The answer is the people that live in the affected community. We’re those people.


Dick Dwelle is former owner of the Athens Daily Review.