EPA will decide if the state is doing enough to reduce pollution in two East Texas counties

Steam rises from the stacks at the Martin Lake Coal-Fired Power Plant in Tatum on March 30, 2011.
Steam rises from the stacks at the Martin Lake coal-fired power plant in 2011. The Sierra Club sued the EPA to force the agency to rule on Texas’ plan to reduce air pollution, which the nonprofit says is largely caused by the power plant, in Rusk and Panola counties. Credit: Tom Pennington for The Texas Tribune

The EPA must decide whether to accept Texas’ plan to reduce pollution from a coal-burning power plant in East Texas after settling a lawsuit with the Sierra Club over air quality in Rusk and Panola counties.

The Sierra Club’s lawsuit accused the EPA of failing to be timely in rejecting or approving a plan submitted in 2022 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to reduce pollution from the Martin Lake power plant near Tatum. The Sierra Club called the TCEQ plan inadequate and has urged the EPA to reject it.

Under the settlement, the EPA must either accept Texas' plan or reject it and issue its own plan to improve the counties’ air quality by Dec. 13, 2024.

“We’ve seen in the past that while Texas plans are generally not adequate, the federal government puts together much more thorough plans that result in better air quality,” said Emma Pabst, a campaign representative for Sierra Club.

The two counties’ air quality hasn’t met federal air quality standards since 2017 due to high levels of sulfur dioxide, which is commonly emitted from power plants, the Sierra Club said, calling the Martin Lake plant “the worst sulfur dioxide and mercury polluter in the entire United States.”

The TCEQ said in an email statement to The Texas Tribune they believe their plan is “fully approvable.”

Paulette Goree, 70, lives 5 miles from the power plant and has spent her entire life in Panola County.

“I’m hoping this means there’s help on the way,” Goree said of the settlement. “I’m hoping it’s gonna be something positive for our community and some changes are being made.”

Goree said that since the Martin Lake power plant opened in the late 1970s, she, her family and neighbors have experienced respiratory issues. She said her sister and father died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which she believes is a result of air pollution in the area. She said her father smoked but her sister didn’t.

Goree owns an air monitor, which checks the levels of pollution outdoors. She said typically twice a week during the summer the monitor indicates the air quality is too poor for her to safely be outdoors.

Misti O’Quinn, a senior field organizer for Sierra Club, said residents near the power plant are “experiencing real-world effects from what is coming out of there” and complain of health problems from asthma to cancer to babies with low birth weight.

O’Quinn said she spent time in the community and residents expressed concern about pollution but many also pointed out that the power plant is a major employer in the area.

O’Quinn is optimistic that the settlement is a step toward improving the air quality for these East Texas communities.

“I won’t necessarily say I have confidence — I have hope” that the EPA will strictly enforce air quality standards, O’Quinn said. “My hope is that they do right by the residents.”

Alejandra Martinez contributed to this story.

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Correction, July 21, 2023 at 5:35 p.m. : A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the EPA must make a decision about Texas' plan to reduce pollution in Rusk and Panola counties by the end of the year. The EPA must either approve the Texas plan or reject it and issue its own plan by Dec. 13, 2024.