Sierra Club could sue EPA over Martin Lake Power Plant sulfur dioxide emissions

The Martin Lake Power Plant is seen Friday, Aug. 23 from the Panola County side of Martin Lake.

An environmental group has filed notice it will sue the EPA if the agency does not enforce a 2016 Clean Air Act finding that the Martin Lake Power Plant threatens local health with excess sulfur dioxide emissions.

The 2016 ruling threatened to throw portions of 13 Texas counties, including Gregg, Rusk, Panola, Titus, Freestone and Anderson in East Texas, into nonattainment with the Clean Air Act. It gave the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality two years to propose an emissions reduction plan.

That still hasn’t happened, and on Tuesday, the Sierra Club notified the EPA of its intent to seek a court order forcing the agency to enforce the Clean Air Act requirement that Texas write a reduction plan. The notice of intent extends for 60 days.

“We want the TCEQ to be put on a timeline (by EPA) to put together a plan,” Sierra Club spokeswoman Chrissy Mann said Thursday. “The Clean Air Act requires them to have a plan.”

But on Thursday, the EPA entered a decision in the Federal Registry to simply drop the areas from consideration for nonattainment. It cited the closure of two offending plants, Monticello in Titus County and Big Brown in Freestone County.

“Those nonattainment areas still exist,” Mann said Thursday. “We’ve got Texas turning up its nose at doing the cleanup. We have almost doubled emissions, since 2016, of sulfur dioxide.”

The Martin Creek plant, owned by Luminant, is nestled in Martin Creek Lake State Park. Mann said it is the largest emitter of sulfur dioxide in the country.

“It’s not just folks from Tatum and Beckville and Carthage,” Mann said of those in harm’s way. “But it’s folks coming from all over to go boating and camping.”

Spokesmen for the state and federal environmental agencies declined to comment on the pending lawsuit. A spokesman for the state agency provided a timeline of events. A corporate spokesman for Vista Energy, parent company of Luminant, did not respond to phone and email messages Thursday afternoon.

It said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, on behalf of the state environmental agency, had challenged the nonattainment designations in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The state agency, in late 2017, asked EPA to reconsider the designations because of the two plants being closed.

The case in New Orleans was soon put on hold, where it remains. And on Wednesday, the EPA simply removed the designations.

Sulfur dioxide, like ozone, is one of five so-called “criteria pollutants” under the Clean Air Act’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The other three are nitrogen oxide, lead and particulates, or soot.

Breathing in the gas irritates the nose, throat and airways to cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or a tight feeling around the chest, according to an EPA fact sheet.

And, while people familiar with air topics know the Environmental Protection Agency will place a region into nonattainment status with the Clear Air Act over ozone emissions, sulfur dioxide can bring the same government sanctions.

Those include strict, often costly, exhaust standards for drivers on annual vehicle inspections and a chokehold on federal transportation dollars. Mann said the environmental group hopes to restart the cleanup process ordered in 2016.

“We would love the response to be, ‘Oh. Let’s start this process up,’” she said. “And now they are trying to pretend the (designation) didn’t even exist at all.”