By Dominick DalSanto
Harvey Hayek owns what was once a very prosperous Pecan orchard in Ellinger, TX. At one time it contained over 3,000 trees and yielded a harvest nearly 200,000 pounds of pecans annually. In recent years however, as impossible as it may seem, the orchard has lost over 2,000 trees and seen its annual harvest drop by nearly 192,000 pounds.
What caused Hayek's once bountiful harvest to fall so dramatically? Hayek, along with several other affected farmers in the area believe the blame lies with the Fayette Power Project - a coal-fired power plant that is located nearby. According to the farmers, the plant, which has been operating for nearly 30 years, is responsible for the damage to their crops due to a lack of pollution control equipment, specifically technology to reduce Sulfur Dioxide, a key component in the formation of acid rain.
Acid rain is formed when excess Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) is released into the atmosphere. Once it collects in large enough quantities in the clouds it combines with other chemicals found in cloud formations, creating rain that has a lower PH level (therefore most acidic) which can stress the local ecosystem and even cause widespread plant death.
Growers point to the barren stretch of land along highway 21 in Hill County Texas, where the plant is located as proof of their claims. "Everywhere you look, it's just dead, dead, dead," Hayek said. Sulfur Dioxide Damage Throughout Texas
Hill country is not the only site in Texas where pollution produced from the burning of coal is being blamed for vegetative hardships. In fact throughout the state of Texas, which is home to more coal-fired power plants than another state, farmers and environmental groups advocate that the power plants are to blame for large-scale environmental devastation across the state. In all of the areas where the phenomenon is present, a coal-fired plant is located nearby.
Not All Agree on the Cause
Debate continues among scientist and plant operators and state officials whether or not this damage is in fact due to SO2 emissions.
Retired University of Georgia plant pathologist Floyd Hendrix, who has done extensive research on sulfur dioxide damage to vegetation, said he has reviewed photographs and test results from Hayek's grove. "From what I've seen so far, there's not any doubt in my mind that it's SO2 injury," Hendrix said.
Sierra Club chemist and botanist, Neil Carman also has visited the ranch. Aside from the decreased nut production, the orchard's leaves bore telltale brown spotting associated with damage, Carman said.
The the Lower Colorado River Authority, the plant's operators, maintain that there is no scientific link between the emissions from the plant and the dying plants. Instead they point the region's recent droughts as a possible explanation.
Nonetheless, the authority is planning to install new pollution control equipment to reduce its SO2 emissions. The new "Air Scrubbers" which use a combination of water, organic, and fabric filter elements to remove harmful chemicals such as SO2 and Mercury, are scheduled to be up and running by 2011, at a total cost of nearly $ 500 million. The effect of these the new equipment is expected to be dramatic; SO2 emissions are projected to be reduced by nearly 90%.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality vs. the EPA
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency charged with enforcing the states environmental laws, maintains that according to its air monitoring activities the Fayette plant "is not the likely cause" of the area’s problems. The plant currently operates within the limits of all state air quality permits.
However, the Commission's credibility recently has been challenged. The Commission is responsible for issuing environmental permits for the state on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, the governmental body charged with enforcing the country's environmental regulations. Recently, however, the EPA has disapproved the Texas State Commission's permitting program due to federal Clean Air Act violations. The EPA claims that Texas air permits do allow for accurate air monitoring and therefore do not measure up to federal standards. This claim has recently been challenged by the state in court.
Along with the EPA, other federal agencies have been conducting investigations into the matter, including the U.S. Department of Justice's environmental wing.
Is Emission Control Technology, the Solution?
Meanwhile as the debate continues on, with no end in sight, the affected farmers still have to deal with the effects no matter the cause.
With current pollution control technology, a coal-fired plant can easily reduce its SO2 emissions by 90%. Add that to the well-documented damage caused by acid rain, what legitimate excuses do plant operators and government regulators have for continuing to delay the implementation of these proven technologies?
Charlie Faupel who's Victoria pecan trees are native plants that have grown along a creek bed for seven generations, says that he knows his land and what is causing the damage. "I have noticed for over 20 years how the Coleto Creek power plant's sulfur dioxide has been damaging hundreds of the trees on our property — live oaks, white oaks and pecans," Faupel wrote. "Most of the white oak trees are already dead. The surviving trees don't have as much foliage and they're becoming more diseased, I believe, from the plant's sulfur dioxide weakening the trees over time.
"On Dec. 9, Faupel filed a formal air pollution complaint against the Coleto Creek plant and demanded the state environmental commission investigate the emissions.
"I'm not one of these fanatic environmentalists," Faupel said. "But when you are a seventh generation rancher, you are taught to be a good steward of the land and you want the things on it, the cattle and the vegetation, to be healthy. And they're not."
About the Author:
Dominick DalSanto is an Author & Environmental Technologies Expert, specializing in Dust Collection Systems. With nearly a decade of hands-on working experience in the industry, Dominick’s knowledge of the industry goes beyond a mere classroom education. Currently he serves as Online Marketing Director & Content Manager at Baghouse.com. His articles have been published not only on Baghouse.com, but also on other industry related blogs and sites. In his spare time, Dominick writes about travel and life abroad for various travel sites and blogs. Born in San Bernardino county California, raised in Chicago Illinois, he currently resides in Buenos Aires, Argentina.