State hearing set for El Paso Electric air permits’ request for Newman power plant project

Written by MLHA Team

June 3, 2021

A Texas administrative law judge will have a part in deciding the fate of El Paso Electric’s controversial plan to add a new, natural gas-fired generating unit to its largest power plant.

Utility officials requested a contested-case hearing on its Newman power plant air-quality permits’ application even though the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, in August gave preliminary approval for the permits.

A virtual, preliminary hearing is set for June 3, when the administrative law judge will determine which parties will be allowed to take part in the trial-like phase of the hearing and establish a hearing schedule.

The judge’s decision after the hearing will be sent to the TCEQ commissioners, who will have final say on approving the permits.

The state environmental agency received more than 200 written and oral comments late last year on the air permit applications, with most of those against the utility’s project. Many people have health and environmental concerns about the Newman plant, including some residents of Chaparral, New Mexico, near the plant.

Several environmental groups oppose the project.

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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. The utility plans to retire two of the plant’s five generators if the new generator is added.

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission late last year rejected the company’s plan, which means most of the Newman addition’s projected $163.8 million cost likely would be borne by El Paso-area customers.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas approved the project in October despite the city of El Paso’s opposition.

In his preliminary decision, TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker determined air pollution from the Newman plant would not violate state or federal air-quality regulations and would not have any significant impact on the environment.

In March, Baker’s written response to public comments said the agency staff’s review determined “that there will be no adverse health effects on the general public, sensitive subgroups, or the public welfare and the environment as a result of proposed emission rates associated with the project.”

The Newman plant can emit 6,236 pounds of 10 categories of pollutants per year under its current air permits, of which 87% are carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, TCEQ data show.

In 2019, the plant had 18,172 pounds of unpermitted emissions, the most of any facility in El Paso, according to a report by Environment Texas, an Austin-based environmental group. Those were caused by equipment malfunctions during two events, an El Paso Electric spokesperson has reported.

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El Paso Electric in February asked the TCEQ to send its permits’ application to the contested-case hearing process to speed the regulatory review process.

TCEQ received a hearing request from the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental group based in Austin and Washington, D.C., Brian McGovern, a TCEQ spokesman, said in an email.

Without El Paso Electric’s request, submitted in February, the agency’s commissioners would have decided whether to grant the environmental group’s hearing request, he said.

George De La Torre, an El Paso Electric spokesman, said utility officials determined having its application go to the contested-case hearing process instead of waiting for TCEQ commissioners to make a decision would speed the regulatory process.

“Completing the air permitting process is essential to maintaining the project schedule,” he said. Company officials have said they want the new generator operating by 2023.

The public can watch the June 3 preliminary hearing on the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) YouTube channel starting at 9 a.m., El Paso time. To be a party in the 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,” the TCEQ hearing notice shows. Registration to attend the virtual hearing can be done on the SOAH Website (soah.texas.gov).

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

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