The proposal to build a coal power plant about 40 miles west of Abilene remains controversial both in Abilene and in neighboring Sweetwater, according to a poll recently conducted by ACU students.
Students in a persuasion course polled residents of Sweetwater, the district in which the plant would be built. A slight majority of 47 percent supported the construction of Tenaska’s Trailblazer Energy Center while the rest were opposed or unsure.
Tenaska: The Debate
Tensions rose in Abilene and Sweetwater this summer as power producer, Tenaska Energy, moved forward in its plan to build a new coal power plant between the two cities. Sweetwater mayor, Greg Wortham, welcomed the plant as an opportunity to boost the local economy, while Abilene refused to sell Tenaska its waste water to run the plant.
Dr. Eric Hardegree, professor of chemistry, said he was pleased Abilene did not sell its water, but still had concerns about the plant. He coauthored an article for the Abilene Reporter-News in July on the coal plant’s potential health hazards.
“During the last couple of months, this has turned from mostly a water issue to a pollution issue,” Hardegree said. “Coal is inherently a dirty fuel. It contains sulfur, mercury, lead, cadmiumÂ and arsenic.”
Tenaska’s proposal includes storing the coal’s waste ash on site. Hardegree said this ash, containing high concentrations of heavy metals, could blow straight into Abilene’s water shed. Lake Fort Phantom Hill, among other bodies of water, could be at risk, Hardegree said.
Additionally, the plant’s new clean energy technology uses amines to capture carbon, Hardegree said. While Hardegree supports the development of the technology, he said it has not been tested enough to insure dangerous amounts of amines will not be released into the air. Some of the amines are mutagens and can cause birth defects, cancer and liver disease, Hardegree said.
“This would be one of the first uses of this carbon capture technology,” Hardegree said. “I just don’t want our environment, water source and citizens to be a huge experiment.”
The Sierra Club and the Multi-County Coalitions brought these and other environmental concerns to court this summer. State administrative law judges recommended Tenaska tighten its limits on pollutants. Tenaska’s proposal has not yet been granted an air quality permit by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Wortham told the Abilene Reporter-News he spoke for the vast majority of Sweetwater residents in his support of Tenaska as a clean energy provider. Dr. Lynette Sharp-Penya, associate professor of communication, was approached by aÂ student who wanted to examine this debate through a project for the persuasion class.
“I thought it’d be a good opportunity for the class to do a real-world issue project,” Sharp-Penya said.
The Poll and Its Methods
The poll was crafted by 22 students with the guidance of Sharp-Penya. Sharp-Penya said she is a member of an anti-Tenaska group, but she still wanted this poll to be completely unbiased.
Betheny Jones, senior communications from Shadyside, Md. was one student who worked on the poll. She said the class researched both sides of the debate before formulating the questions but were instructed notÂ toÂ take a stance on the issue before the poll was conducted.
The persuasion class polled 525 randomly-selected Sweetwater residents by telephone on Oct. 9-24, Jones said. Only individuals 18 or older who were aware of the proposed plant were asked to complete the survey.
The poll had a completion rate of 47 percent and a margin of error of plus or minus four percent.
Sweetwater Speaks: The Results
Although 47 percent of Sweetwater residents supported the construction of the power plant, an even higher number, 49 percent, opposed selling local water to Tenaska.
The reasons behind the plant’s support in Sweetwater were illustrated in the poll. A majority of 68 percent of Sweetwater residents believed the construction of the plant would create jobs. Fifty-three percent believed the plant is necessary to meet future energy needs, although only 21 percent agreed that it would decrease electrical costs.
One-quarter of Sweetwater residents were unsure about the plant’s potential effects on Sweetwater’s water, air and residents’ health, Sharp-Penya said. Although a majority of 42 percent believed the coal plant would pollute the air, residents were split nearly evenly over whether the plant would pollute local water.
“It’s unusual that you would have that many people unsure about an issue,” Sharp-Penya said. “These are people who know about the plant, but they’re just really unsure about the effects.”
The mix of responses on whether the coal plant will harm people’s health was too close to show a clear majority because of the margin of error. 35 percent of respondents said the plant would be harmful, while 41 percent said it would not and the restÂ were unsure.
Jones said the project is a motivation for her to inform others about the proposed plant and encourage them to research both sides of the debate.