EL PASO — A West Texas utility giant can move forward on building a natural gas power plant in a low-income neighborhood following a settlement with a group of grassroots activists that had sought to halt the project.
Under the agreement, El Paso Electric cannot expand construction beyond the four natural gas units planned for the Montana Vista neighborhood in far east El Paso County, though it may consider building solar panels on the site. Some of the company’s employees will also join a citizens advisory panel that will hear concerns over environmental and emergency issues related to the plant’s operations. The electric company will also establish a fund to help residents obtain energy-efficient materials for their homes, according to a statement by El Paso Electric Company.
The settlement, announced Tuesday, comes more than a year after Far East El Paso Citizens United, a group of about 200 activists, tried to block the construction, citing numerous environmental and safety concerns. They were represented in state and federal proceedings by the El Paso office of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.
“While we wish the plant was not in our neighborhood, we are very pleased with the settlement agreement, particularly EPE's agreement not to build additional turbines and possibly install solar panels at the plant,” Ralph Carrasco, the citizens group’s executive director, said in a statement. “[El Paso Electric] has given serious consideration to our concerns, and we are looking forward to working together.”
Carrasco said in April that the group’s chief concerns included the utility’s plans to build the natural gas extractors near fuel tanks for an existing pipeline project. Officials with El Paso Electric, which also serves a portion of New Mexico, said they followed all state and federal guidelines and added that the plant is needed to serve the needs of the fast-growing county.
“This power station is part of a larger plan to replace older, less efficient generation to reliably serve the growing needs of our customers and remain a national leader with a low carbon footprint and increase our use of renewables,” Tom Shockley, El Paso Electric’s chief executive officer said in a statement Tuesday.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is expected to issue the electric company its permit soon, officials added. But the federal greenhouse gas permit could take longer than anticipated.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued its draft air permit for the project in September, and the Sierra Club submitted its public comments on the permit this month for further review. Travis Ritchie, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, said the comments filed on the El Paso project were among several petitions filed across the country. It’s part of the Sierra Club’s effort to help provide insight into the EPA’s approval process, which he called a “new permitting regime.”
“We’re engaging in existing public process, not trying to delay the process,” he said. But, he added, a delay could be a byproduct of the group’s efforts, something El Paso Electric officials conceded on Tuesday.
Petitions by any outside parties seeking further review could delay construction until the second half of 2014, the officials said.