Coal Power Plants South of the Border Rile Texans

WHILE the El Paso-Juarez region appears to be making progress on its air pollution problem, two massive coal-fired power plants located 425 miles southeast of El Paso continue to generate electricity and controversy.

Known as Carbon I and II, the Mexican plants became a high-profile issue in the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was ratified by Congress last November. When fully operational, the two plants, located a few miles south of the Rio Grande near the Mexican town of Piedras Negras, will burn 10 million tons per year of locally mined low-grade coal and generate enough power to supply a city of more than 1 million residents.

But the plants do not have scrubbers for their air emissions or any of the pollution-control devices that would be required if they were built in the United States. To install scrubbers would cost an estimated $300 million.

The result: About 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide will blow into the US every year. The National Park Service believes the sulfur compounds from the plants could reduce visibility at Big Bend National Park by up to 60 percent.

When NAFTA was being scrutinized by Congress, only one of the four generating units at Carbon II was operational. Today, two units are generating power and the remaining two units will come on-line next year.

Last month, Texas governor Ann Richards (D) made her first public comments on the plants, calling them ``totally unacceptable.'' Environmentalists who have worked on the power plant issue over the past year say little has been resolved. ``There hasn't been any concrete progress'' on the power plants, says Mary Kelly, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Center for Policy Studies, a nonprofit research group that focuses on NAFTA-related environmental issues. ``Part of that is the situation in Mexico. But this situation demonstrates the weakness of the binational management system.''

While state and federal officials continue discussions on the plants, opposition in Texas appears to be solidifying. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby recently published an opinion piece on the power plants saying, ``A coal plant without scrubbers is like a dog that's not housebroken.''

But electric-power demand in Mexico continues to grow. And plans are being made for another coal-fired plant in the region which will be called Carbon III. Construction is expected to begin in 1996 or 1997.

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