If the speed limit along the winding Texas highway 71 did not drop down to 55 mph, you might not realize you’re passing through a tiny town called Ellinger. Located an hour and half southeast of Austin, the town has a population of 372 residents. There is a post office, a church, a BBQ joint, and two gas stations. In the springtime, the town is blanketed with beautiful Texas bluebonnets.
The area has a rich tradition of farming pecans, the Texas state tree. In fact, some Ellinger families have been working the same pecan orchards since the days of Santa Anna, Davy Crockett, and the Alamo.
Most travelers only stop in the town long enough to refuel and admire the wildflowers of the central Texas countryside. If they stuck around a little longer, they’d hear a heartbreaking story of a town dying from coal plant pollution.
I visited Ellinger for the first time three weeks ago. It was here that I met longtime Ellinger resident and former pecan grower Harvey Hayek. His story is the story of so many other pecan growers here in central Texas--a heartbreaking tale of livelihoods destroyed by an irresponsible and unnecessary dependence on dirty coal.
This is their story.
The Fayette Power plant, jointly owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority and the City of Austin, was built 6 miles north of Ellinger in 1979. As federal environmental studies began to shed light upon coals devastating effects to people and the environment, newly permitted power plants were forced to adopt new but inadequate pollution control measures. Unfortunately, the Fayette Power Plant was grandfathered out of having to install any of the new technologies which would have helped reduce at least some of the plant’s deadly pollution.
Beginning in 1980, local pecan growers began to experience their first decreases in pecan yields. Many farmers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new technologies such as improved irrigation and fertilizing systems hoping that the investments would help stop the annual decreases in pecan yields.
At first leaves and branches were dying, but as the years went on, the problem got worse--much worse. Hundred year old trees started to die one by one. As of today, fifteen thousand Ellinger trees are completely dead.
Before the power plant came to town, the Hayek farm produced almost a quarter of a million pounds of pecans each year. His voice cracking, he described the pain of having to go to the local grocery store to buy pecans for the first time just so his family could enjoy pecan pie for the holidays.
Hayek makes ends meet these days by digging wells. He had hoped that one day his grandchildren would take up the family business. Hayek said that even if he were to plant new trees which could survive the plant’s pollution, it would take 25 years for the trees to produce again. At 60 years old, Hayek admits he’ll likely never see trees on his property produce pecan yields again.
According to a report released by Dr. Neil Carman of the Sierra Club, the cause of this devastation is sulfur dioxide pollution. Dr. Carman’s study shows that 72% of all air pollution in the entire county comes from this one plant. “There is nothing else that would account for it,” Carman states.
In the 1970’s, in a similar case, pecan growers settled a lawsuit against a Georgia power company that they claimed killed their pecan trees.
The Fayette power plant, of course, denies culpability. Unfortunately for Hayek and his neighbors, they don’t have the legal right to sue the Fayette Power Plant in the hope of getting compensation. The Texas state legislature gave the plant sovereign immunity from such lawsuits.
The Texas state legislature should make an exception and allow the farmers to present their case, and fingers crossed this may happen.
The problem, however, will not be solved from just compensation. Coal is unnecessarily destroying lives. Until we stand united with the pecan growers and say no more coal in Texas, we’ll continue to put our communities and livelihoods in the hands of politicians and the special interests they serve.