The controversy over the regulation of pollution from coal mining and coal-fired power plants, highlighted by the dilemma Sulphur Springs now faces, ultimately comes down to protecting people or protecting profits. Texas is America’s seventh largest producer of coal with 29 strip mines across the state and multiple coal fired power plants, including several in Northeast Texas.

Most attention has been focused on the damage caused by the smoke from coal-fired plants, which was responsible for acid rain as well as respiratory problems for humans and animals. A far more dangerous problem is the disposal of coal ash, the by-product of burning.

Coal ash has four to 10 times the concentration of toxins, including lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium, boron and sulphur, as unburned coal, and has been linked to pneumonia, lung cancer, heart problems, infertility and other health problems. Improper disposal of coal ash, a far too common problem, allows these toxins to leach into groundwater and ultimately into the aquifers that supply water to wells, both private and municipal.

Competition from cleaner energy from renewables and natural gas have cut into coal industry profits: eight coal energy companies nationwide have filed for bankruptcy this year, often leaving pollution problems in their wake. Two Texas agencies are charged with regulating coal ash disposal: the Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Both have been headed by “industry friendly” department heads who have done the minimum to enforce existing federal and state standards.

President Donald Trump has decided to roll back Obama-era regulations that protected the environment from industrial pollution with an emphasis on coal in a futile attempt to save coal jobs. The environment and everyone and everything that depends on it are the real losers in the Republican drive to deregulate industry and put protecting profit above protecting people.

Gary O’Connor is chairman of the Lamar County Democratic Party. He can be reached at

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