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TribBlog: EPA and TCEQ Debate Permitting

At a lunchtime debate on Thursday in Austin, federal and Texas pollution regulators aired their disagreements over the state's controversial permitting program for large plants.

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Federal and Texas pollution regulators aired their disagreements over the state's flexible permitting program at a lunchtime debate in Austin today.

"These permits are truly protective of public health and they meet federal law and federal requirements," said Richard Hyde, deputy directorof the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. However, earlier today, three environmental groups alerted the Lower Colorado River Authority that they intend to sue over emissions from its coal plant near La Grange, which has a flexible permit and is one of the largest power plants in Texas.

The state's system of flexible permitting allows plants to regulate only the overall emissions of a facility rather than the pollution emanating from individual units within the plant. Environmentalists say the regulations do not prevent high concentrations of pollution in specific areas of a plant, which could endanger nearby neighborhoods. Some of the flexible permits also let companies produce an additional 9 percent of emissions on top of the existing emission limit, though Hyde of the TCEQ said that after EPA pressure, that would no longer be the case for new plants.

Carl Edlund, director of permitting for the EPA regional office that includes Texas, told the forum (which was hosted by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation) that the federal government had serious concerns about the permits. Flexible permits are granted to more than 120 of the largest plants in Texas, like refineries and chemical factories — and in a given facility it is a challenge to "determine whether it's even in compliance with the cap," Edlund said.

The EPA "disapproved" TCEQ's flexible permitting system last month, and has also forced three big plants to apply for federal rather than state permits. "Business is caught in the middle," said state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee.

Rich Walsh, vice president and general counsel of environmental safety and regulatory affairs for Valero Energy, the refinery company, called it a "myth" that Texas permitting is lax.

Edlund, of the EPA, said that the flexible permitting program, which began in the 1990s, was originally supposed to have been meant for "minor sources" — not the largest plants in the state, as it is now. Better monitoring is needed, he said.

The federal government has taken over the permitting of three large plants, but a federal takeover of permitting is not an objective, according to Edlund: "In the end, what we want is the state to issue the permits."

Hyde, of the TCEQ, noted that Texas air pollution has improved in the last decade, and he said that flexible permits contained sufficient information to enable regulators to do their job.

"Everything is there. All the hourly and annual emissions limits are in the permit," he said.

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