Sierra Club, Chaparral group to fight El Paso Electric power plant project in state hearing

Written by MLHA Team

June 17, 2021

The Sierra Club and a Chaparral, New Mexico, community group will be allowed to challenge El Paso Electric’s controversial plan to add a gas-fired generator to its largest power plant during a contested-case state hearing.

Rebecca Smith, a Texas administrative law judge, on Thursday granted hearing party status to the Sierra Club and the newly formed Chaparral Community Coalition for Health and the Environment, which means they can take part in the pending state hearing.

It will be a trial-like hearing Aug. 30-Sept. 1 on the utility’s request for state air-quality permits for the planned, $163.8 million project at the Newman power plant.

The plant is located on 175 acres in a mostly undeveloped area at Stan Roberts Sr. Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Northeast El Paso, which is near Chaparral.

Both groups oppose the project because they argue it will increase air pollution in the area.

More: El Paso Electric proposes $41.8 million rate increase, with big boost in residential bills

After the hearing, Smith will issue a decision on whether the air permits should be granted. Her decision will be sent to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality commissioners, who will have the final say. The agency has a Nov. 30 deadline to act on the request for permits.

It’s possible the issue could go to state mediation instead of a hearing if El Paso Electric and the two organizations agree to that process. 

Utility officials want to have the new generator in operation by 2023.

The TCEQ executive director in August gave preliminary approval to issuing the permits.

El Paso Electric officials in a statement said TCEQ has determined “the project complies with all applicable rules and regulations which are established to be protective of human health.”

Smith granted the organizations hearing party status after a more than three-hour virtual preliminary hearing Thursday.

Her decision was based on testimony by two Chaparral residents — Ida Garcia and Lori Humble — who are neighbors on Iron Horse Avenue, about 2 miles from the plant. They said they have health concerns tied to the plant’s pollution.

Garcia said she and her husband recently formed the Chaparral community group to oppose the utility’s project. The group is being represented by Colin Cox, a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project, which is an environmental group based in Austin and Washington, D.C.

“I am a cancer survivor and I feel because I am at risk, that this (Newman plant) can affect my health,” Garcia said during the preliminary hearing.

Humble testified on behalf of the Sierra Club, represented at the hearing by Joshua Smith, a lawyer with the national group’s Environmental Law Program.

More: El Paso Electric plans smart meter system for Texas, New Mexico customers

John Riley, a lawyer for El Paso Electric, argued the TCEQ has a “rule of thumb” that only an area within a mile radius of a facility is seen as an affected area in state air-permit cases. Because Garcia and Humble live beyond that radius, the organizations they are tied to should not be granted party status in the EPE case, he said.

Smith, the judge, noted the TCEQ’s use of a 1-mile radius is not a law. The two Chaparral residents live close enough to the Newman plant to warrant giving the Sierra Club and Chaparral group party status in the hearing, she ruled.

To be granted party status in the state hearing, a person or organization must show they’d be affected by the power plant project “in a way not common to the general public,” according to the TCEQ.

Smith denied party status to Eco El Paso, a local environmental group, because it could not prove it had members who lived near the Newman plant.

Vic Kolenc may be reached at 546-6421; vkolenc@elpasotimes.com@vickolenc on Twitter.

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