Exclusive: Mexico power plant violated environmental law, documents show
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[August 05, 2020]
By David Alire Garcia
TULA, Mexico (Reuters) - For at least four
years, one of Mexico's largest power plants violated an environmental
safeguard that prevents emissions of deadly pollutants, according to
documents seen by Reuters.
The Tula thermoelectric plant north of Mexico City breached the legal
limit for the amount of sulfur in the fuel oil it burned between 2016
and 2019, according to internal documents from the national electricity
company, Comision Federal de Electricidad (CFE), which owns and operates
The sulfur content during each of those four years - detailed in
state-run CFE's annual operations reports - was at least 3.9%, nearly
double the 2% cap set by Mexico's energy regulatory commission for six
industrial corridors, including the Tula area.
While some Mexican environmentalists have long believed that the plant
was breaking the sulfur content rules, the CFE's reports on plant
operations that were seen by Reuters detail the violations. The reports
are not publicly available.
Reuters could not determine whether the power plant has continued to use
fuel oil containing excess sulfur this year.
Besides the high sulfur levels, the CFE documents show another
violation: emissions of sulfur dioxide, a harmful air pollutant, are not
being registered by the plant even though that is required by law.
"The CFE shouldn't burn this fuel at 4%. The rule establishes that it
should be at 2%," said Xochitl Galvez, who grew up near the Tula plant
and is now a senator for the opposition National Action Party.
The CFE did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The energy
regulatory commission, which is meant to enforce the sulfur limits, also
did not respond to questions.
Mexican law sets fines of between $82,000-$820,000 for breaches of
contaminant limits for fuels, including the maximum sulfur content
When high-sulfur fuel oil is burned without contaminant-capturing
filters, massive amounts of particles and gases are released into the
air that some scientific studies show can lead to premature death and
more people developing respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis as
well as some cancers.
Energy experts say the plant is likely operating with few or no filters.
Reuters could not independently confirm this.
The CFE did not respond to questions about premature deaths or whether
the plant uses filters.
"They must not have hardly any controls on their stacks," said Jonathan
Dorn, an emissions expert at U.S.-based consultancy Abt Associates, who
works closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's power
He described the Tula plant's 2019 emissions levels as "crazy."
The Tula plant's five chimneys belch out a steady stream of
purplish-gray smoke at all hours, easily visible from its perimeter
fence. An acrid smell fills the air, causing mild throat irritation.
Next door lies Mexican state oil company Pemex's second-largest
refinery, where the fuel oil is produced.
High sulfur fuel oil is produced by Mexico's refineries for a number of
uses besides power generation.
Pemex's press office did not respond to requests for comment.
Some environmentalists and academics have linked emissions from the Tula
plant to chronic poor air quality in Mexico City 58 miles (94 km) away
where a frequent haze has not abated during the coronavirus lockdown
despite sharply reduced traffic.
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Excess natural gas is burnt, or flared, in the distance from Mexican
state-run Pemex's Tula oil refinery as seen from a pedestrian bridge
next to the Tula power plant belonging to national power company
Commission Federal de Electricidad, or CFE, in Tula de Allende,
north of Mexico City, Mexico June 22, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Romero
The violations at the CFE's 1,500 megawatt power plant, one of the
three biggest in Mexico, mostly predate President Andres Manuel
Opposition politician Galvez, along with environmental scientists
who have studied the Tula plant, said the continued violations
during 2019 reflected an ongoing dependence on fossil fuels in Lopez
Obrador's first year in government.
About 13% of Mexico's power comes from renewable sources, mostly
wind and solar, according to energy ministry data.
Lopez Obrador's office did not respond to a request for comment.
In the past the president has said he cares about a clean
environment, while being unapologetic about the need to prioritize
domestic supplies as he seeks to wean the country off foreign fuel
His national energy plan, unveiled in June, called for "making the
most of fuel oil for electrical generation" while taking unspecified
steps to lower sulfur levels.
CFE chief Manuel Bartlett told Reuters in a May interview that the
company is committed to using cleaner energy, especially natural
gas, but that such a transition will take time. The CFE is also
looking to expand hyodroelectricity generation."We want to eliminate
fuel oil, but you can't do that from one day to the next," Bartlett
High levels of sulfur in oil burned for power create three
especially dangerous air pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides
and particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5).
The CFE documents show that the Tula plant emitted 9,487 tonnes of
PM2.5 in 2019. That made it the highest emitter in North America,
according to a Reuters comparison with publicly-available U.S. and
Canadian government data. The coal-fired Shawnee power plant in
Kentucky was the top U.S. emitter, the comparison showed.
Tula's PM2.5 emissions exceeded Shawnee's by nearly 30%.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, a U.S. state-owned enterprise that
operates the Shawnee plant, did not respond to a request for
Tula emitted 14,090 tonnes of nitrogen oxides last year, the
documents showed, putting it in third place for the largest
emissions of those contaminants in North America.
Following years of public pressure in Mexico, the Tula plant was
upgraded from 2009-2016 to also use cleaner-burning natural gas.
However, a natural gas pipeline that would supply Tula has stalled
since 2015. Nearly all of the plant's power in 2019 came from
burning 8.6 million barrels of fuel oil, the CFE documents show.
(Reporting by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Christian
Plumb and Alistair Bell)
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