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StateImpact: EPA Rules In Attempt To Clear Haze Over Wichita Mountains

Filed by Nikole Robinson Carroll in Feature, State Impact.
January 9, 2014
 

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Federal regulators are forcing Oklahoma’s largest utility companies to lower emissions at their coal fired power plants or shut them down. The goal is to clear the air on federal lands. Several other states are dealing with similar rules, but not Texas. StateImpact’s Logan Layden visited the Lawton area to find how power production in north Texas affects The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge just across the border.

The change came gradually over the last few decades.

Avid hiker and chief of the Meers Volunteer Fire Department Bill Cunningham is from here, and says, most days, his view of the peaks is… obstructed.

“It’s just a haze hanging in the air. It’s kind of a white film you can see on that southern horizon,” Cunningham Says.  “And it lingers and persists.”

A cold front has cleansed the air today, and we have to get to higher ground to find that white film.  The temperature drops and my ears pop as I drive the serpentine road to the top of Mount Scott, where the view is truly stunning. At the blustery summit, we turn into the southwest wind, and looking into Texas, there it is.

“Check that out, Cunningham says. ”If that’s not haze, I don’t know what is…”

It could just be dust. He says when the wind is right, it can be smog, but Cunningham says,m not an activist. But I will tell you there is a big coal fired power plant in Vernon, Texas about 50 miles southwest of here.”

Al Armendariz is a scientist — and an activist. The former SMU professor’s stint as an EPA administrator was short lived. He resigned after a controversial comment he made comparing his approach to dealing with coal plants to Roman crucifixion surfaced. Now he works with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

“Pollution doesn’t recognize state boundaries, and scientists have known for years that our pollution from Texas blows north over the Red River and impacts Oklahoma,” Armendariz says.

Armendariz says the pollution from Texas is particularly bad, adding, “The Texas coal plants are truly some of the dirtiest in the country. In fact, just the largest two coal plants in Texas emit about as much sulfur dioxide as the ten largest plants in Arkansas and Oklahoma combined. So they’re very dirty plants and yet they’re not being required to reduce their emissions the way that sources in Oklahoma have been required.”

t yet made a decision on the one from the Lone Star State.

“In Texas,” Armendariz says, ”the regional haze plan that the state regulators put together doesn’t require a single one of the 19 coal fired power plants in Texas to install a single scrubber, or a single catalyst to reduce emissions.”

Back at the Meers Volunteer Fire Dept., Cunningham says he doesn’t need the science to convince him pollution from Texas could be blowing into the Oklahoma hills.

“In the early 2000s there was that huge series of wildfires in southern Mexico that the smoke was seen up in the Oklahoma panhandle and up into Kansas,” Cunningham says.

The EPA’s attention is now on Texas, and it’s expected to reject — or accept that state’s plan in the coming months.

 

 

StateImpact is a collaboration of NPR member stations in Oklahoma. Find more at stateimpact.npr.org.

 

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