EL PASO, Texas - The El Paso County Commissioners court hearing was unusually packed on Monday morning.
More than 50 people who reside in east El Paso County gathered to ask County Commissioners to get involved with their fight against a proposed power plant in Montana. The homeowners came with small stars reading "Say no," attached to necklaces, each pleading that Commissioners join their side before 15 people spoke to their representatives.
El Paso Electric is looking to build a natural gas power plant capable of powering 80,000 homes. The plan also calls for the ability to expand later on if the region's energy needs change.
According to a report from the El Paso Electric, natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel available citing U.S. Energy Information Administration numbers showing dramatically lower levels of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury compared to oil and coal power plants.
The chief concern with resident who gathered appeared to be how close the plant would be to their homes. The plant, planned to be built on Montana Avenue near Flager Street.
Commissioners spent more than 30 minutes in executive session near the beginning of Monday's meeting. Afterwards an assistant county attorney Erich Morales spoke publicly telling Commissioners that the county had little footing to get involved.
Morales told Commissioners their only option would be to get involved as an effected party and take legal action against the ambient air permit that sits before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). However, he told the County he didn't believe they had much standing to call themselves an effected party, and if they did questioned whether there would be much of a fight.
Moments later County Judge Veronica Escobar summed up the words of the county's lawyer saying, "We (the county) really have no standing," before allowing residents to come forward to speak during public comment.
Despite that news, east El Paso residents approached the dais during public comments person after person pleading the county to change their minds and get involved.
One man, Rafael Carrasco, told Commissioners he and his wife had recently built a home in the area. Carrasco pointed to his children in the audience, a young boy and girl, and questioned what the future of his children would be.
"How can I trust a company that says one thing, but their integrity is another," asked Carrasco pointing to a report from the New Mexico Environmental Department claiming that El Paso Electric had previously declined to report violations. Carrasco, and several other residents, told Commissioners that report showed 650 violations between 2001-2006.
As more people began to question why the County wouldn't get involved, citing the information raised by Morales and Judge Escobar prior to allowing them speak, the Judge stopped speakers to explain the County's position, telling them questions to whether the City of El Paso would handle it differently were correct.
"You mentioned if this happened in the city of El Paso it would be a different story," said Escobar. "That is absolutely 100 percent correct."
Escobar told the residents that the county has continually fought for more powers, similar to that of municipalities, for several decades.
"We cannot do anything more, and we are mandated by the state to do certain things. For the last two decades your county government has been asking our state government to allow us more authority so we can have powers similar to the city of El Paso."
Commissioners Carlos Leon and Vince Perez told residents they understood their concerns and hoped to keep an open dialogue. However, the County closed the topic without a vote because there is nothing in their power they can do according to Commissioners, and their attorneys.
A lawyer working with the residents decried the decision, telling ABC-7 that counties in Texas can get involved with similar cases on the basis of protecting the public health, or their tax base. She cited information about Goliad county getting involved with a TCEQ permitting process for a uranium mine.
Commissioner Perez told the court he believed the county could get involved, but that it would be to the detriment of the county. Perez said it would be a costly endeavour that he couldn't burden the county with, but said he intended on sending a letter to the TCEQ showing his opposition to the proposed power plant.
"I don't think it would change the end result in the outcome of this case," said Perez.
Marybeth G. Stevens, a public relations worker with El Paso Electric, said the company would continue to educate the public on the issues brought up in Commissioners court. She said a previous offer stands that anyone interested in touring their Rio Grande power plant location can do so through her office. Stevens said a similar unit has been built at that location, and that residents can see it first-hand. According to Stevens, no residents have taken her up on that offer since she first made it in April.