Two coal plants operated by Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. are releasing more sulfur dioxide than will be allowed under upcoming federal regulations, the Sierra Club said Thursday as it kicked off a campaign to inform residents around the Sooner and Muskogee plants.
The Sierra Club said it commissioned an air quality study showing sulfur dioxide emissions that could be harmful to the health of nearby residents in Muskogee and Red Rock. The organization plans to mail copies of its pollution maps to residents in the next few weeks.
OG&E said its plants are operating within the allowable emission limits.
“OG&E is in full compliance today with state and federal air standards,” spokesman Brian Alford said. “Our plants are continually monitored by the state. None of the actual monitoring data exceeds National Ambient Air Quality Standards.”
The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for monitoring air quality and implementing federal Clean Air Act rules, said its ambient air monitoring indicates compliance for sulfur dioxide.
“No areas of the state have been designated as being in nonattainment for the standard,” department spokeswoman Skylar McElhaney said in an email.
The Sierra Club hired a consultant to perform a modeling analysis on emissions from the Sooner and Muskogee plants. The organization said its analysis of sulfur dioxide emissions came to similar conclusions as a preliminary internal study by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The issue of using modeling analyses or monitoring data is one that is hotly debated within air quality studies. EPA allows both types of measurements for assessing compliance with various regulations.
EPA established new standards for sulfur dioxide emissions in 2010, but their implementation has been delayed as the agency decides how to determine attainment. It is collecting comments on drafts of documents that states will use to implement the new standards.
“We agree that there have been no formal declarations of nonattainment, and that is exactly our point,” said Whitney Pearson, organizer for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. “We are warning the state and OG&E that unless they reduce emissions, areas in Oklahoma will be designated as nonattainment for SO2 (sulfur dioxide) for the first time.”
Pearson said the new standards for sulfur dioxide were based on science and show prior pollution levels were too high to adequately protect health.
The Sierra Club called on the state Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to enforce the new sulfur dioxide emissions standards and revise operating permits for the coal plants. It also wants OG&E to use more wind energy.
OG&E's Alford said on hot days like Thursday, there isn't enough wind blowing to supply the electricity demands of customers.
“We believe fuel balance is essential,” Alford said. “We appreciate the passion, but we have to be realistic about what is achievable and affordable for our customers.”
Residents speak out
On a conference call with reporters, the Sierra Club made available members who live near OG&E's coal plants. Muskogee resident Sylvia Swan said she worries about fellow residents with asthma and how long children can play outside in the areas near the plant.
“It's the responsibility of the state and federal agencies to protect us, and it should be the responsibility of OG&E to produce electricity without harming us,” Swan said. “It's time to clean up the Muskogee plant now; that's why I've gotten involved in the effort to educate my community about this important issue.”
Longtime Osage County cattle rancher Joe Bush said OG&E's Sooner plant is about 30 miles southwest of his ranch headquarters. Although he's not an OG&E customer, Bush said he'd pay more for his electric bill if it meant a cleaner environment.
“I've been concerned about the effects of pollution on my health, my family, my livestock and local wildlife,” Bush said.