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Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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Community members from Texas and New Mexico affected by smog coming from El Paso Electric (EPE) are ready to hold the Environmental Protection Agency’s feet to the fire in an effort to get something done about ozone pollution. Amid the community uproar about unacceptable levels of air pollution in the Las Cruces and El Paso areas, the Lone Star and the Rio Grande chapters of the Sierra Club submitted over 1,000 public comments calling for action from the EPA to bring EPE into compliance with federal health-based standards for ground-level ozone pollution. The Sierra Club and Familias Unidas del Chamiza filed a lawsuit in 2018, and as a result of that lawsuit, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the EPA to address smog pollution in and around El Paso and southern New Mexico.

In its 2021 State of the Air report by the American Lung Association, Las Cruces and El Paso areas were ranked 13th in the country for worst air in terms of ozone. The designation for 2021 was the same the area had received in 2020. To put it into perspective, the designation is worse than New York, Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth. The new Newman 6 Power Plant proposed by EPE, if built, would increase ozone emission to 1,335,500 tons per year.

The Newman Generating Facility, operated by EPE, is one of the largest sources of ozone-forming pollution in the El Paso-Las Cruces area and the chief nitrous oxide emitter. The community is trying to get support from the EPA before EPE completes plans to build a 228-megawatt fracked-gas generator outside of Chaparral, N.M. The Chaparral Parents in Action strongly oppose the development and construction of this new extension of Newman 6 Project. “The Newman 6 Project will have serious deadly consequences for our people, and we must not let this happen,” said Dr. David J. Garcia of Chaparral .

Environmental Organizations are urging the EPA to finalize a proposed nonattainment designation for El Paso County as quickly as possible. They are also urging the EPA to designate Doña Ana County in its entirety as an ozone nonattainment area. In United States’ environmental law, a nonattainment area is an area considered to have air quality worse than the National Ambient Air Quality Standards as defined in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970.

“The outpouring of support we’ve seen from our community is remarkable. It shows that borderland residents are deeply concerned about the climate crisis and dangerous air pollution, and want to see bold action to reduce emissions and transition away from fossil fuels,” said David Baake, a native of the borderlands who represented the Sierra Club in the 2018 lawsuit. According to objections filed with Texas and New Mexico utility regulators, Newman 6 has also drawn criticism from hired experts by the cities of Las Cruces and El Paso and New Mexico’s attorney general.

The ozone smoke is colorless, and you would need a special electron lens to truly see the pollution. Ozone can reduce lung function and inflame the lining of the lungs. Breathing ground-level ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including throat irritation, coughing, chest pain and congestion. It can worsen emphysema, bronchitis and asthma.

EPE’s application to build the plant required approval from both states as it provides electricity to more than 437,000 customers in Southeast New Mexico and West Texas. The new Newman 6 plant was unanimously approved by Texas utility regulators in October 2020, however the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission unanimously denied the application in December 2020 because the Energy Transition Act, a 2019 state law mandating New Mexicans receive 100 percent of their power from zero-carbon sources by 2045, was not considered in the application.

Even with New Mexico legislators’ denial of the EPE application, the utility company said it will continue with the development of Newman 6. The planned power plant, according to the utility, would “ensure a long-term” positive environmental impact on the community and would replace older and less-efficient equipment. If built, the plant’s operation would impact borderland communities for the next four decades. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality still has to approve the air permitting process for Newman 6. An administrative law judge ruled June 3 that the Sierra Club and a citizen group from Chaparral, N.M., can challenge the state of Texas’ pending approval of a permit for EPE’s proposed gas plant. 

In addition to hundreds of public comments, the Sierra Club also submitted formal technical comments to EPA, to underscore the gravity of the regional pollution problem, and called on the EPA to act quickly to protect residents of southern New Mexico and El Paso from dangerous air pollution. “We need a comprehensive plan to reduce pollution, particularly in the communities of color that far too often bear the brunt of smog and other pollution, and we need El Paso Electric to accelerate its transition to 100 percent clean energy,” Baake said.

Estimated costs for the project include $157 million for construction and $6.2 million for transmission costs. With a projected $18.6 million in savings and fuel costs in the first year, the utility will more than make back the cost of the project in its first year of operation according to testimony from James Schichtl, vice president of regulatory affairs, submitted to the Public Utility Commission of Texas

“The fracked-gas power plant in Chaparral has been polluting for years and hits hardest in fence line communities like ours” said Ida Garcia, a member of the Chaparral Community Coalition for Health and the Environment. “I have an analogy for El Paso Electric: If I was making drinks full of toxic pollutants and offered to reduce (but not eliminate!) the amount of toxic material, would you want to drink the brew? Of course not! The solution is no pollution; not for El Paso Electric to say, ‘Oh, at least we’re polluting less.’ Newman 6 must not be built, and El Paso Electric must invest in clean, renewable energy instead.”

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