Activists promote clean energy

Anna Fata

Harvey Hayek, the owner of a pecan orchard that has been in his family since 1898, has lost about two-thirds of his crop since the Fayette Power Plant moved into town in 1979.

He said he had to start another business to sustain his family and expects his entire crop will be wiped out within five years.

Hayek is one of many pecan farmers around the state losing crops because of what environmental advocates and pecan growers believe can be fixed by using cleaner energy sources.

To encourage the Austin City Council to move toward cleaner energy methods, activists and pecan farmers delivered pecan pies to council members Monday. The pies may become more rare as pecan crops diminish in Texas because of what they believe is caused by pollution from coal power plants.

Ryan Rittenhouse, an organizer for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, said carcinogens and toxins in the air emitted from coal plants lead to health risks for the general public.

UT alumnus Neil Carman wrote a study on the pecan tree deaths in the Fayette area, located about 60 miles southeast of Austin, near La Grange. He said the 30-year accumulation of sulfur dioxide the Fayette Power Plant emitted caused the decline of pecan yields in the area.

Carman said the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages energy in Texas, and the city of Austin, which owns part of the power plants, have already decided to build scrubbers to reduce coal emissions. A scrubber is a device that acts like a shower to clean 95 percent of the sulfur oxide, he said.

“That doesn’t take into account the sensitivity of the pecan trees, and so I am concerned there still will be some injury to the pecan trees from the sulfur oxide emissions from the power plant,” he said.

The Texas Pecan Growers Alliance wrote a letter to the LCRA addressing their grievances, and the LCRA responded with a letter that said the group is working to reduce emissions.

According to these letters, the scrubbers will reduce emissions of the pollutants, but they “cannot make commitments for unlimited compensation” to the pecan growers “based on unfounded claims.” But they will review Carman’s report for better understanding of the pecan growers’ complaints.

Rittenhouse said coal plants have hidden costs.

“We don’t pay for it when we pay our electricity bill, but this coal plant is costing these pecan growers their livelihood,” he said. “That should be considered when Austin Energy and the City Council make their decision about what kind of energy to use.”