Naked City

Air Clearing Over Rockdale?

It's too early to celebrate, but Austin's neighbors from Neighbors for Neighbors -- the Elgin-based community group that for several years has been fighting mighty Alcoa Inc. -- won another big victory last week with a settlement that will force the aluminum giant either to dramatically reduce air pollution from its Rockdale smelter or shut it down. On April 8, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Public Citizen, Environmental Defense, and the Neighbors group submitted the agreement with Pittsburgh-based Alcoa to a 30-day review of a federal judge. Under its terms, the company would pay a $1.5 million fine and spend another $2.5 million on environmental mitigation projects, begin reducing the emissions from its Rockdale plant immediately, and eventually cut emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) by 95% and of nitrogen oxide (NOx) by 90%.

The EPA and citizen groups sued Alcoa in 2001, after Neighbors for Neighbors volunteer researchers found federal and state records showing Alcoa had performed major modifications to the Rockdale plant in the mid-Eighties, increasing the plant's emissions, but not installing required pollution control equipment. Alcoa denies they violated the law and says it agreed to the settlement only to avoid continuing litigation.

The Rockdale plant is fueled by strip-mined lignite coal and has for many years been the single largest source of toxic air emissions in Texas, annually spewing more than 100,000 tons of SO2 and NOx into the Central Texas skies. Its operations had been grandfathered under the state's 1971 Clean Air Act, but federal and state rules governing "new source review" should have been triggered when the company rebuilt its power units almost 20 years ago. "Had Alcoa followed the law then," said an announcement last week from Public Citizen, "Texas would have been spared more than one million tons of excess pollution."

Although the EPA and the U.S. Dept. of Justice said the company would build a new $330 million facility to replace the polluting units, the company is not obligated to do so. Instead, Alcoa may decide by this summer to rely on an adjoining TXU generating station for power or else shut the plant altogether.

The Alcoa settlement comes as the Bush administration and the EPA push to replace New Source Review rules with more lenient standards they claim would lead to more voluntary cleanups. Neighbors for Neighbors continues to oppose Alcoa's plan to expand its lignite strip-mining operations, and Neighbors' President Billie Woods said the group would have preferred that the settlement require Alcoa to make larger reductions sooner and to pay a fine more in keeping with the profits it made by violating the law. "But given current efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act," Woods said, "the settlement is the best we could probably hope for."

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