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Planned El Paso Electric plant concerns far East Side residents

By: Aileen B. Flores |

Residents in far East El Paso fear that the construction of a proposed natural gas power plant near them will affect their health and environment.

Residents of the Haciendas del Norte subdivision and Montana Vista are opposing the Montana Power Station that El Paso Electric plans to build to address growth in power demand on the East Side.

The plant would be near the intersection of Montana Avenue and Zaragoza Road. It would be next to the Longhorn Pipeline petroleum tank storage terminal in that area.

The new station will consist of two 88 megawatt simple-cycle aero-derivative combustion turbines powered by natural gas. Once complete, the power plant will be able to provide electricity to 80,000 homes.

The power station is scheduled to be in service for the summer and peak season of 2014.

The proposed Montana Power Station will be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to an environmental agency.

A notice of application and preliminary decision for an air-quality permit, which was published by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in the Oct. 15 edition of the El Paso Times, says the proposed facility will emit air contaminants in a significant amount, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. The facility would also emit air contaminants such as sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, organic compounds and ammonia.

Residents are concerned that the facility will contaminate their community, affecting their health.

Residents say natural gas represents a serious environmental hazard. Carbon monoxide, sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide are known for causing respiratory problems, they claim.

“El Paso Electric has downplayed the fact that this plant will be using natural gas, but the use of fuel to produce electricity can result in a significant amount of pollution,” said Adrian Castillo, a resident of Haciendas del Norte for more than 10 years.

Another concern is the plant will be built next to a several fuel tanks near Montana Avenue and Flager Street, Castillo said. He said El Paso Electric has not approached them to explain the risks of building a power plant close to the fuel tanks.

Ernestina Rivera, who has lived in the area for 11 years, said, “I moved here to avoid contamination.”

Rivera fears the contaminants that will be released by the power plant can cause respiratory diseases in children. The power plant will be near several schools, she said.

“I have two children and I’m concerned about their health,” she said.

Rivera is also concerned about the effect the construction of the facility may have in her home’s value, claiming the construction of a power plant can reduce the value of her home.

Housing values within two miles of a power plant can decrease between four and seven percent according to a study from the University of California at Berkeley. The impact can be larger for houses located within a mile of a power plant, the report shows.

The study, which was published in 2010, also states that power plants are a major source of nitrogen oxides and other pollutants that have negative impacts on human health.

“However, under normal operating conditions the vast majority of these pollutants are diluted in the atmosphere and carried far away, resulting in relatively modest disproportionate impacts in the immediate vicinity of power plants,” the report says.

Henry Quintana, spokesman for El Paso Electric, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and other environmental agencies will not allow the construction of the power plant if it represents a negative impact on human health or puts people in danger.

“We have to get approval from a lot of people to ensure and show them what we are doing, and we certainly will not be allowed to build the plant in an area where we thought or they thought was going to be a danger to the residents of that area,” he said.

The plant will not operate unless El Paso Electric meets the standards set by TCEQ and EPA, Quintana said.

El Paso Electric has two other power plants in El Paso, the Newman Power Plant in the Northeast and the Rio Grande Power Plant on the West Side. Both use natural gas, which is the cleanest fossil fuel available to operate electric generating stations.

“If our plants were emitting dangerous emissions they (TCEQ and EPA) would not let us operate those plants,” Quintana said.

TCEQ has prepared a draft permit after it was determined that the emissions of air contaminants will not violate state or federal air quality regulations, the TCEQ’s notice of application and preliminary decision shows.

The document states the air contaminants will not have “any significant adverse impact on soils, vegetation, or visibility.”

In addition, the notice of application gave the opportunity for people to comment and to request a contested case hearing. So far, more than 140 people have filed their comments, mostly against the construction of the plant and many others requesting a hearing.

“In response to a request for a public meeting, the TCEQ is currently scheduling a location and time in El Paso to hold the meeting,” Terry Clawson, a spokesman for TCEQ, said in a written statement.

He said comments will also be taken during the meeting.

“Once the public meeting is held, the TCEQ will prepare a response to comments and set the item on the Commissioners’ Agenda for a decision on the multiple contested case hearing requests. If the hearing requests are granted by the commissioners, then a hearing will be conducted with SOAH (State Office of Administrative Hearings). If the hearing requests are denied, then the permit will be issued,” Clawson added.

Neighbors are asking El Paso Electric to be more open about the plan and to find another place far from development to build the power plant.

Residents say El Paso Electric did not approach the people of the area until residents started to raise questions and concerns about the dangers the new plant might bring.

“This site is going to be near thousands of people,” Castillo said. “We’re not against producing energy, but we are against having the plant near our homes.”

If constructed, the nearest home to the power plant will be 1,200 feet away, Castillo said.

El Paso Electric chose the site near Montana Avenue and Zaragoza Road to built the Montana Power Plant for several reasons.

“We needed to built a power plant in the East Side where the growth is taking place right now,” Quintana said. “This particular piece of land is very close to existing transmission lines, it’s very close to Fort Bliss, so we might be able to serve them also, and it’s a good location for us to serve the East Side of El Paso.

“Everything that we need, including water, to operate a power plant is right there in that area,” he added.

Quintana said El Paso Electric announced the construction of the power plant in April. Since then, El Paso Electric officials have met with community leaders in the area giving them information.

“We have attempted to inform them as much as we can with the things that we control,” he said.

He said informative signs are posted in the construction site, while the information is also available online at www.epelectric.com/about-el-paso-electric/montana-power-station.

Residents have organized a public meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Montana Vista Firehouse, 13978 Montana.