When Ralph Carrasco was considering adding a chimney to his new home in far east El Paso County’s Montana Vista subdivision in November, he got some startling news from his builder, and it was not about the estimated price of the project. The area’s giant utility monopoly was looking to set up shop less than a half-mile from his house.
“Toward the end of the conversation, he said, ‘Hey, have you heard they’re going to build a power plant? Next to where you live?” Carrasco said. “At the time I didn’t know anything.”
Less than six months later, Carrasco is the director of Far East El Paso Citizens United, a group of about 200 residents opposed to El Paso Electric Company’s plans to build the natural gas power plant near a colonia, an impoverished community common along the Texas-Mexico border that is in an unincorporated swath of land.
The utility says the facility is necessary to meet the needs of the growing city and county. It says it will use the latest technology to extract the cleanest fossil fuel available. But residents fear that a range of air and water contaminants will have an impact on their community.
“We have several arguments against the power plant, one of them is the location,” said Carrasco, whose group is getting legal help from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “Why build immediately next to residents and immediately behind massive fuel tanks? That’s a big concern, in the middle of so many houses and people and schools.”
Attorneys for the group said there are at least 7,000 residents in the area.
Henry Quintana, the director of public affairs for the El Paso Electric Company, which serves far West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, said that the site was selected in 2010 in part for its proximity to infrastructure. He added that the utility has passed muster with all regulators, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency. Once completed, the plant will supply power to 80,000 homes.
“We are meeting all regulations to build the plant, not just city regulations,” he said. “There are also national regulatory agencies and state regulatory agencies.”
The controversy has attracted the attention of some state lawmakers representing the area. State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said the site — which is close to fuel tanks used for another controversial project, the Magellan pipeline — is nestled within a community where people are powerless to stop its construction. In the colonias, common necessities such as clean running water and electricity are not available to all.
“This is one of the colonias that is still in one of the worst conditions, it still doesn’t have roads, it still doesn’t have natural gas,” she said. “That’s my concern. They have options, they are the only electric company in El Paso, and so what can they also be considering instead of this site where the community doesn’t want it?”
Quintana said the location was close to water and transmission lines and roads that the company needed. He said the company had surpassed requirements for the location of the fuel tanks.
“The recommendation is 250 feet,” he said, while the company has placed its 850 feet from the site. “We have gone beyond.”
But González wants to add oversight for the utility. She filed an amendment that would have required El Paso Electric to go through another layer of state approval to build the plant. The amendment was withdrawn, so González is drafting a stand-alone bill.
“When thinking about building these potentially hazardous sites, which communities are we putting them in?” she said. “And why do we think that’s okay? This has health hazards and this has other hazards already in a difficult place like a colonia. Are we just reinforcing a cycle of poverty?”
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, says he, too, has heard from constituents.
“This is a big deal. This isn’t a gas station or a Walmart or a high school, it’s a power plant,” he said. Nonetheless, he said, the Legislature was limited in what it could do.
“I imagine they were limited in their choices," he said. “I would just hope they treat their residents with respect and give them the information, but it’s going to be a tough one to stop.”
Carrasco said another source of frustration for his coalition is poor communication. He said he found about one of the TCEQ’s public meetings on the plant by chance, and that the local news media had not been well informed.
Veronica Carbajal, an attorney with the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, said that the project has been cloaked in secrecy.
“They applied for the permit in April of last year, but my clients were not aware of it until November,” she said. “The local politicians were aware of this but did not notify my clients. And as soon as my clients found out they asked the TCEQ for a public meeting and the meeting was held in December.”
Quintana took issue with that assessment.
“We attempted in April 2012 to let them know through community meetings, and news releases," he said. “We did highly publicize the fact.”
He said he had also invited residents who live near the proposed site to view a similar project a month away from opening at the utility’s west-side plant, where he hopes some of the fears will be soothed.
Meanwhile, Carrasco and Carbajal are moving forward. In June, the TCEQ will hold its third hearing, where Carrasco and Carbajal will state their case against the project. The commission will decide then if the utility can proceed with its plans.
“The concern with this permit is it is for a power plant and even though it is a natural gas-powered power plant, it’s still going to emit different contaminants,” Carbajal said. “It’s not a zero-emission permit and the concern that we have is that El Paso Electric and the state of Texas should be pushing for greater use of renewable energy. If this was a solar plant, my clients would not be contesting the permit.”