A Year After the West Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Little has Been Done to Fix Regulatory Issues

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For Immediate Release:

April 16, 2014

Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director, Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter

AUSTIN – Thursday will mark one year since a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas killed 15 and injured nearly 180 people, causing an estimated $100 million in damages to local homes, schools and businesses. The accident was an example of a preventable, industrial incident, according to comments filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for the Lone Star of the Sierra Club.

In his remarks to the EPA, Carman emphasized that simple steps would have prevented the fire and subsequent explosion of ammonium nitrate at the plant, including “simply adding a limestone additive to the mixture that would have reduced the likelihood of a fire and explosion.” Carman explained, “Limestone is relatively inexpensive and it does not weaken the fertilizer. The West fertilizer plant already had blending equipment that could have been used for adding and mixing the limestone with the ammonium nitrate.“

In the absence of the EPA acting to address the regulatory issues surrounding Texas fertilizer plants, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) already has the authority to strengthen regulations, yet has not done so.

According to Carman, the TCEQ could take steps today to make fertilizer plants safer — such as requiring limestone to be mixed into the fertilizer, and if a company chooses not to make that decision, it could be required to maintain a quarter-mile perimeter around the facility to protect the public.

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On Monday, the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety held a hearing on the West explosion and considered regulatory options for preventing similar incidents. While many comments at the hearing suggested requiring fertilizers with volatile or explosive properties to be held in concrete or metal buildings to prevent fires, Carman said it is unclear that this would be sufficiently safe.

“Requiring that new warehouses and manufacturing facilities that house dangerous chemicals or fertilizers be constructed of non-flammable materials would be an improvement over current practice, but dilution, buffer zones, better reporting and more frequent inspections must also be considered,” Carman noted.


Court Upholds Air Safeguard that Would Prevent Thousands of Deaths from Toxics and Mercury

In a ruling that will help thousands of Texans subject to hundreds of pounds of mercury and toxics released every year to the atmosphere to the air by dirty coal plants in Texas, the US Court of Appeals upheld the US EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Rule of 2012. Below is a press statement. 


NAACP joined other clean air advocates in defense of this important protection

APRIL 15, 2014



Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Rule (MATS). Earthjustice represented the NAACP, the Sierra Club, Clean Air Council,and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in the case.

MATS will annually prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, nearly 5,000 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks, and more than 540,000 missed days of work days. It will also protect babies and children from exposures to mercury than can damage their ability to develop and learn. The EPA has estimated that every year, more than 300,000 newborns face elevated risk of learning disabilities due to exposure to mercury in the womb.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of toxic air pollutants, and account for almost half of the nation’s mercury emissions. The Clean Air Act directed the EPA to set limits requiring the maximum achievable reductions in mercury, arsenic, lead, and the many other hazardous air pollutants that power plants emit no later than 2002. In 2012 after a decade of delay, the agency finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics rule. A group of industry and corporate polluters immediately filed a lawsuit challenging this rule.

The following are statements from groups who defended the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule:

Said Jacqueline Patterson, Director, Environmental and Climate Justice Program for NAACP:

“The NAACP applauds the D.C. Circuit Court for this important and historic decision. Civil rights are about equal access to protections afforded by law. Given the disproportionate impact of coal combustion pollution which negatively affects the health and educational outcomes as well as the economic wellbeing of communities of color, the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule is a critical tool for exacting justice. These standards provide essential safeguards for communities who have suffered from decades of toxic exposure.”

Said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Vice President for Litigation Jon Mueller:
“Mercury from power plants is a leading source of the pollution that has led to fish consumption advisories in rivers and streams around the country as well as here in the Chesapeake Bay region. Those contaminated fish put the health of many, including those who fish to feed their families, at risk,” said Jon Mueller, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Vice President for Litigation. “These new limits will reduce pollution and the associated human health risks, and is a legacy that we should leave to our children and future generations.”

Said Joseph Otis Minott, Executive Director, Clean Air Council:
“The court’s decision to affirm these long, overdue standards clearly demonstrates the importance of controlling toxic emissions while also rejecting the complaints of inconvenience raised by industry and corporate polluters. We applaud the court’s judgment and look forward to ensuring this critical rule is properly implemented.”

Said Mary Anne Hitt, Campaign Director for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coalcampaign:
“Coal- and oil-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury pollution that poisons our lakes and streams, as well as arsenic and other toxic metals and gases. By upholding the rule, the court has helped our country take a great step forward toward protecting our children from these dangerous pollutants.”

Said Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew:
“The emission limits upheld in court today have already won broad public support, and for good reason. Power plants’ toxic pollution takes a horrible toll on peoples’ lives and health, especially in low income communities and communities of color. By allowing this rule to take effect, today’s decision will help reduce that toll.”


Maggie Caldwell, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2084
Michelle Nealy, NAACP, (202) 292-3384
John Surrick, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, (443) 482-2045
Ryan Knapick, Clean Air Council, (215) 567-4004, ext. 125
Anna Oman, Sierra Club, (202) 650-6061

Statement on Austin Court of Appeals Decision to Reject Sierra Club’s Challenge to TCEQ’s Radioactive By-Product Disposal Facility

Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director, Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club

AUSTIN – Earlier this week, the Austin Court of Appeals rejected a Sierra Club challenge to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issuing a license for a Radioactive By-Product Disposal Facility by Waste Control Specialists L.L.C. (WCS). In an unusual ruling authored by Justice Rose, the court determined that Sierra Club could not claim standing in the case and therefore could not have access to a contested case hearing if the TCEQ Executive Director had already concluded that the project would have no impact to a potential off-site resident at the property boundary.

“The Court in reaching its decision in Sierra Club v. TCEQ & WCS not only eliminates an individual’s ability to challenge the authorization of radioactive waste disposal within their own community, but the court’s opinion is written so broadly that it could also eliminate the right of all Texans to present evidence and challenge the decisions of a state agency in a contested-case hearing,” commented Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“The court describes the public meeting that TCEQ held, during which they announced their decision, as a public hearing. But to describe this meeting as a hearing would suggest that all parties were able to participate and present their evidence. This simply did not occur. There was no opportunity for our plaintiffs to present evidence of how they would be negatively impacted by the facility. They were not even allowed to present oral comments to the TCEQ commissioners.”

Reed noted that the case is actually one of two WCS licenses in which the Club is seeking legal redress before the 3rd Court of Appeals. In a decision on Sierra Club’s other challenge to a WCS license, the State District Court ruled that TCEQ erred by not granting the Sierra Club a contested case hearing on a radioactive waste license for low-level radioactive waste that is also disposed of by WCS in Andrews County.  That decision was immediately appealed by the State of Texas and WCS.

“We will continue to review all of our legal options in both the by-product and low-level radioactive waste cases,” Reed said. “With all of the proposed industrial activity in Texas, and talk of bringing high-level radioactive waste to Texas, we need to assure that citizens and landowners have the right to question and provide evidence even when the State tells us an activity is perfectly safe.”

New Sierra Club Report Reveals Major Potential Sources of Climate Pollution; Highlights Need to Keep Dirty Fuels in the Ground

Thursday, April 10, 2014
Contact: Virginia Cramer, 804-519-8449


WASHINGTON, D.C. —  Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures,a new report released today by the Sierra Club reveals four major potential sources of carbon pollution that, if developed, could dramatically alter the world’s climate. Data shows that the oil, gas and coal from these potential sources, including the Arctic Ocean, the Green River Formation, the Powder River Basin, and the Monterey, San Juan Basin and Marcellus shale plays, have the potential to release billions of tons of new carbon pollution into the atmosphere, more than negating positive climate actions taken by the Obama administration.

“We can’t keep burning fossil fuels and reduce climate pollution at the same time. It’s common sense.” said Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director. “As this report demonstrates, real progress to fight climate disruption requires that dirty fuels be kept in the ground.”

As the report details, developing just a fraction of the dirty energy in these major climate disrupters would cancel out the United States’ greatest accomplishments in the fight against climate disruption– efforts like the Obama administration’s new fuel economy standards. Developing just one of these climate disrupters, the Arctic Ocean, for example would result in two-and-a-half times more pollution than would be saved by the new fuel economy standards.

Already, through administrative actions and by doubling down on clean energy, the Obama administration has done more than any other to reduce carbon pollution. For the first time in 20 years, domestic carbon dioxide emissions are decreasing. An effective climate strategy however, requires that these steps be accompanied by efforts to leave dirty fuels in the ground. Several such pragmatic steps are outlined in the report.

The report calls on the Obama administration to consider climate pollution, like other dangerous air and water pollution, before dirty energy projects move forward. It asks the President to close loopholes that allow the fossil fuel industry to benefit at the cost of Americans’ health, environment and future; and it stresses that new energy projects and leasing should be focused on clean, not dirty, energy.

“Whether they are found beneath our public lands or next to our homes and schools, dirty fuels must be kept in the ground.” said Dan Chu, Senior Director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign. “We should be taking advantage of available clean energy options that will create jobs, protect public health and fight climate disruption.”

Read the full report here.

About the Sierra Club
The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 2.4 million members and supporters nationwide. In addition to creating opportunities for people of all ages, levels and locations to have meaningful outdoor experiences, the Sierra Club works to safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and litigation. For more information, visit http://www.sierraclub.org.


Multiple New Reports Show Energy Efficiency Can Save Texas Businesses and Families More — Much Less Costly Than New Electric Power Sources

Press Release Contact:
Tod Wickersham 512 680-4379
Cyrus Reed 512-740-4086

Austin – The Texas Coalition for Water, Energy and Economic Security, a coalition of consumer, energy efficiency, church groups, business interests and environmental organizations, noted that filings this month with the Public Utility Commission of Texas indicated that 10 investor-owned transmission and distribution utilities reduced over 415 megawatts (MW) of peak electric demand in 2013, while saving Texas consumers nearly 550,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of energy through energy efficiency programs. The utilities reported that their 2014 program offerings are expected to produce a similar, but slightly lower amount of additional peak energy demand reduction and energy savings.

One MW is enough to power about 200 homes during periods when electric use is highest and about 500 homes during mild weather when less electricity is being consumed.

Furthermore, the 10 utilities only spent $136 million on these programs in 2013, meaning that the average cost per kilowatt of demand reduced was $328 and the average cost per kilowatt hour (kWh) saved was less than 3 cents per kWh, based on the 11-year average lifespan of the programs. Instead of the average home/business having to pay 8 cent to 12 cent for a kWh, these energy efficiency programs enabled the average home/business to avoid using that energy at a cost of less than 3 cents per kWh, while also reducing peak demand at a fraction of the cost to build new generation to meet that peak demand.

The utility reports confirm data from two recent national reports from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that found that statewide utility energy efficiency programs continue to save energy and peak demand at a fraction of the price of generating additional electricity through traditional means. At about three cents per kilowatt hour, Texas programs are in the middle of the cost of programs throughout the nation.

“Year after year, these effective energy efficiency programs demonstrate that they help Texas businesses and families significantly reduce their monthly energy bills, but the PUC has capped the ability of utilities to help their customers realize these savings,” said Tod Wickersham, a business consultant with Beneficial Results LLC. “Now is the time for the Legislature and the PUC to remove the program restrictions that prevent further lowering of Texans’ electricity bills.”

“Once again, the utility energy efficiency programs continue to be a great value for Texas consumers, helping to reduce energy costs while helping meet energy demand through weatherization for working Texans, incentives for green homes, better windows, better air conditioners, better pool pumps and better insulation, as well as demand response to reduce loads during periods of peak demand,” said Cyrus Reed, Chapter Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “The average cost of a peak kilowatt reduced was much less than would be required to build a new power plant, while the average kilowatt hour of energy saved over its lifetime was far lower than the average cost for the same amount of energy that would be generated by a traditional power plant.”

“Our coalition wants to highlight the efforts of larger utilities like Oncor, American Electric Power and Centerpoint, but even smaller utilities like El Paso Electric and Texas-New Mexico Power exceeded their required goals established by statute and the Public Utility Commission” said Karen Hadden, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition. ”In all, only two smaller rural utilities – Sharyland and Xcel – fell short of their demand or energy savings goal, and in both cases, there were mitigating circumstances. Both expect to meet their goals in 2014, according to their filed reports.”

While the utilities’ energy efficiency programs continued to grow slightly in 2013, expected demand reduction and energy savings is actually expected to shrink slightly to about 350 MWs of demand reduction and 545,000 MW hours, in the next two years. Two factors are constricting the ability for energy efficiency to realize its full potential.

First, the Public Utility Commission has set strict cost restrictions on the amount of money utilities are allowed to charge the public for the programs, even though the programs themselves must be shown to be cost-effective and save more money than they cost. Thus, utilities can not raise their “Energy Efficiency Cost Recovery Factor” above the cap – except by inflation – set by the PUC in 2012 to pay for the programs, in essence putting an upper limit on the amount of peak demand and energy savings they can help customers achieve.

Second, a controversial rule established by the PUC in 2012 allows commercial customers who are connected to an industrial facility to opt out of the programs, which means they neither pay for nor participate in any of the programs, even though they benefit, along with all customers, from lower overall prices and increased reliability because of reduced demand and system benefits. However, as the numbers of participants is lowered, the utility budgets and goals for the programs have shrunk.

“Instead of expanding these cost-effective programs – which are already required to be evaluated and verified as cost-effective each year – the PUC is effectively placing a straight jacket on them through artificially constricted cost caps and an opt-out for some commercial customers who clearly benefit from and should be part of the program,” noted Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office .

Wickersham said, “At a time when the Public Utility Commission has been concerned with how to support Texas’ robust economic growth and keep the lights on, policy makers should consider expanding these cost effective and valuable programs rather than choking them. The Commission and the Legislature should consider raising the utilities’ energy efficiency goal from less than one-half of one percent of peak demand to one percent of peak demand by 2018, remove, or at the very least increase, existing cost caps, and get more customers to participate in the programs, further benefiting all retail electric customers.”

Attachments include two charts and two tables.

Chart 1. Range of Levelized Costs of Energy by Energy Source
Chart 2. Average Capital Costs of Energy Resources
Table 1. Statewide Utility Energy Efficiency Goals, Budgets, Savings and Program Costs
Table 2. Individual Utility Energy Efficiency Goals, Budgets, Savings and Program Costs.

Also see new ACEEE Report: Energy Efficiency Resource Standards: A New Progress Report on State Experiencehttp://aceee.org/research-report/u1403


ERCOT sets another wind power record… yet again

Wind power keeps helping meet Texas’ electricity needs. Last week, ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees Texas’s electricity grids and markets for about 80% of the state, reported that wind power set a record on Wednesday evening, March 26, when instantaneous output reached a record 10,296 megawatts (MW) at 8:48 p.m. 

At that time, wind generation was providing about 30 percent of the 35,768 MW of electricity being used on the ERCOT grid. The new record beats the previous record set earlier this month by more than 600 MWs. Of the total generation at the time, 1,433 MW came from wind generators on the Gulf Coast, while 8,863 MW came from other regions. Most came from West Texas, where Competitive Renewable Energy Zones were recently completed, as authorized by the Texas Legislature. 

“When Texas first approved a Renewable Portfolio Standard in 1999, no one could have imagined Texas wind topping 10,000 MWs in instantaneous use less than 15 years later,” noted Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director with the Lone Star Chapter. “The even better news is even after meeting the RPS goals ten years early, wind developers continue to build new capacity throughout the state. The transition to clean energy is happening right before our eyes.” 


You Can’t Say They Don’t Care What You Think – Public Input on HB 4

Last November Texas voters overwhelming approved Proposition 6 – a proposed state constitutional amendment that created a new state water fund for water projects in the state water plan. Approval of “Prop 6” indirectly transferred $2 billion from the state’s “rainy day” fund into this new State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) to provide water for “non-rainy” days.

But just moving money around doesn’t create water. That’s why what’s happening now at the state’s Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) is so important. When Texas legislators proposed Prop 6 to the voters in 2013 they also passed House Bill 4 (HB 4). HB 4 tasks TWDB with administering the SWIFT and sets out some of the basic provisions by which decisions are to be made about how SWIFT monies may be used to assist water projects and strategies.

Even HB 4 doesn’t answer all the questions, however, about how SWIFT is supposed to work and which water projects should have the highest priority for state financial assistance. TWDB has to adopt rules to provide more guidance to answer these questions. The Legislature directed TWDB to put those rules into effect by March 2015.

However, the over-achievers at TWDB don’t want to wait that long. TWDB has vowed to finalize the HB 4 rules by December of this year.

To achieve that ambitious goal the leadership at TWDB has been conducting an active outreach to Texans to seek suggestions for the new rules before the agency even prepares a draft for formal proposal. The TWDB Board held work sessions in Conroe, Lubbock, and Harlingen to hear directly from the public on how to implement HB 4. TWDB staff held three “open to anyone” stakeholder meetings in Austin in January,February, and March that featured wide ranging discussions of issues that need to be addressed in the HB 4 rules.

Among those issues were basic questions like what is a “conservation” project? HB 4 says that TWDB should use not less than 20% of SWIFT funds for conservation or reuse projects, but how do you define “conservation” – is it things like installing high-efficiency toilets and fixing leaking pipes, or does it include activities like rainwater harvesting, brush management, and aquifer storage & recovery (ASR)? [Answers from the environmental community: yes, yes, probably, maybe but it depends, and absolutely not, even if it’s a good thing to do!]

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has participated actively in this process and has submitted a detailed set of comments to TWDB on HB 4 implementation. The Club’s comments put the emphasis on conservation as the first priority for TWDB funding. But the Club notes that regional water planning groups and water utilities have to make conservation a priority also to realize the full potential of SWIFT to help Texans use water more efficiently. Sierra Club recommends that the Best Management Practices guides maintained by the state’s Water Conservation Advisory Council be a source of information about which practices most likely constitute “conservation.”

Others have weighed in with suggestions about HB 4 implementation as well. For example, Texas Tech Law School student John Eisler submitted to TWDB a thoughtful paper (“The Case for PACE”) about how Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs might be integrated with SWIFT financing to promote water conservation.

If you care about our state’s water future, there’s still time for you to make informal input on HB 4 and SWIFT to TWDB through an online portal on the agency website. The sooner you provide your comments, the better.

There will be another opportunity to comment later during the formal rulemaking process. TWDB staff is expected to take a draft set of HB 4 rules to the agency Board in June for approval to publish in the Texas Register for a 30-day public review and comment. Check the TWDB website for updates.

Just keep in mind – if we’re going to successfully navigate the journey to a secure water future for Texas, we need all oars in the water. Now is your chance to help paddle!