The New Gas Plant and Race
Is a New Decker Lake Gas Plant Environmental Racism?
When I read an editorial by an environmental activist decrying the building of a new gas plant at Decker Lake in East Austin as environmental racism, I wondered how much truth there was to this accusation. Austin has indeed logged incidents of environmental racism in its past, including building Holly Street Power Plant in a Hispanic neighborhood, and the “Tank Farm,” a storage depot for petrochemicals in East Austin emitting dangerous air- and water-borne chemicals.
I decided to research if the siting of Decker Lake, as well as other electric and fuel plants in the city, to see if they fit in the same mold. After extensive research, I found that environmental racism, or racial insensitivity, were not motives in siting the existing facility or building a new one.
But that is not all that I found.
Relative to the span of recorded history, providing electric power and natural gas to large numbers of people is a recent innovation. Read this story and you will view a different side of Austin seen through the evolution of its energy infrastructure over more than 100 years. It was a much more primitive place, where environmental abuse and pollution were much more tolerated than they are now. It was a time when staying warm in the winter dwarfed concerns people had about air quality and asthma. It was the dawn of an age when convenience of electricity began to replace the drudgery of kerosene lamps and ice deliveries.
Researching history, it is apparent that most of the location decisions for electric and gas utility infrastructure in Austin were largely based on the technology available at the time and the shape of the city.
One must keep in mind that until 1928, Austin did not have access to natural gas from petroleum drilling. Building heating, water heating, cooking, factories, and power plants commonly used coal, coke, and wood. Pollution control was probably primitive if it existed at all, and tolerance for onsite pollution was relatively high compared to today. It was not until about 1900 that the first gas-fueled cooking ranges began to be sold in Austin, which were fueled by a utility that gasified coal. Even as late as 1940, when the first survey of heating fuel was conducted by the U.S. Census, over a quarter of homes in the city of Austin were still heated with wood. (In the state of Texas, the same Census found 47% of homes were heated with wood, and another 3% with coal.)
A. First Steam Plants and Seaholm Power Plant – The first fossil fuel electric generation plant creating enough electricity to serve Austin was located on the Colorado River near the mouth of Shoal Creek at or very near the historic Seaholm Power Plant building on Cesar Chavez Street.7 The site and generation equipment on it were purchased by Austin’s utility in 1902 from the rival, privately owned Austin Water, Light, & Power Company after a bitter 15-year struggle.8
The private company probably chose the site, in large part, because it was on the banks of the Colorado River, and it had water supply wells adjacent to it. The location was also important for the water supply used in its steam generators. The company had generated power at the location from at least 1887 and probably as far back as 1885.
There were “negro shanties” identified in a historical map near the plant site in 1885.9 It is unclear if the privately owned company purchased the land out of racial disregard, or if the tenements were created before or after the plant was built. Nor were black citizens of the era confined to the neighborhood. The Freedman’s towns in the Austin area that sprang up after the Civil War were located far away from this plant.
By 1900, Census records show that the downtown area the plant was located in was racially integrated; people of different races sometimes lived next door to each other. Most residents were working class.10
To say the area was mixed use would be an understatement. There were homes literally across the street or adjacent to the power plant, an ice factory, and a cotton compress, all of which consumed coal and were located on the river. Another coal-consuming factory that gasified coal to provide lighting was also in the area, as well as 2 lumberyards and a foundry. This is not to mention the railroad that ran down 3rd Street, and road dust, as Austin’s first street was not paved until 1906.
According to a detailed analysis of Census records from 1900, whites, blacks, and Hispanics all lived within one or two city blocks of the larger coal consuming facilities.
The Austin dam break in 1900 knocked out the City’s electric generation for about 5 weeks. The generators from the hydroelectric facility were salvaged from the river and attached to an old steam engine on the shores of the Colorado at what was then the far Western edge of town, about a block west of where Lamar Boulevard is today.
Most of the old generation equipment that the City purchased from the private company could not be reused because it was in disrepair. Instead, Austin reinstalled its coal plant at the Seaholm site beginning in 1906.11 It was converted to natural gas in 1929. By the time of its conversion, it was burning up to 45,000 tons of lignite coal a year.12 An obvious sign that city government had little concern for the environmental effects of coal was that, in 1924, a new water treatment plant was built on the land adjacent to it. Coal was being burned about 800 feet from the town’s only potable water supply directly east across Shoal Creek.
The City installed several more modern gas units at the site to expand generation capacity. The first more modern unit commenced operation in 1950. Ultimately 9 small units (20 to 40 MW) were built there; 2 of them had the flexibility to burn coal, though this never happened.13 The site was eventually named for Walter Seaholm, a former manager of the electric utility.
By 1956, there were still a few single-family homes located as close as 400 feet away from the plant. Census statistics from 1950 showed that the population of the Census tract the plant was located in was at least 86% white and, by Census definition, “not of Spanish ancestry,” and had a median income 42% higher than the Travis County average.14 It was also in a greatly expanded central business district.
B. Holly Street Power Plant – Expansion of the electric system for Austin’s growth required another plant site, as well as prodigious amounts of water. This in turn required the construction of the dam that created Lady Bird Lake, named Longhorn Dam because it was built near a river ford that was part of the Chisholm Trail used to herd cattle after the Civil War.
Holly Street Power Plant was built at the site of Austin’s first sewage treatment plant, where Holly Street intersected the Colorado River. The sewage plant ceased operation in about 1938. The City’s ownership may have been one reason for building the power plant there. Despite the power plant’s proximity to at least 100 homes within 600 feet of it, noise mitigation was not a priority. The City could have prevented some of the nuisance problems by purchasing the land and buildings closest to the plant, but this forethought did not occur.
According to the 1960 Census, 64% of the families in the Census tract the plant was located in had Spanish surnames. Protests regarding environmental racism became pronounced in the 1990s. Holly Street was finally taken off line in 2007, partially in response to these complaints.
C. Decker Lake Power Plant – The Austin City Council voted in December 1964 to purchase land near Decker Creek based on an engineering review of several competing sites for expansion of the electric power system.15 According to Council minutes, the choice was based on: 1) proximity to the City (though at the time the site was not in the City limits); 2) proximity to a new transmission line for the regional grid traveling east towards Austin; 3) ease of adding rail lines to transport construction equipment and supplies; and 4) (most importantly) access to a low-lying area that could be converted into an artificial lake for cooling water.
Another advantage was that a considerable amount of the land surrounding the lake site had potential to be used as a recreation facility, which created space between the plant and the eventual residential development that occurred.
Of the 3,733 acres of land ultimately purchased for the Decker site, by far the largest parcel was 552 acres co-owned by a small group of investors including Jake Pickle, who had been elected to the U.S. Congress the year before. This partnership had purchased the land in 1959, and ultimately grossed $214,000 for their investment.16 It is unclear to this author how much was known to the partners of the City’s plans for utility expansion 5 years prior to the City Council vote. Perhaps this was just a lucky coincidence.
The first Decker unit came online in 1971. The 1970 Census showed that there were only 5,022 people in rural Census tract that Decker was located in; 97% did not live in the City limits. While their income was only 71% of the mean income for households in Travis County, at least 64% of these inhabitants were white and “not of Spanish ancestry.”17
Due to geography, it was (and is) impossible for anyone to live directly adjacent to the power plant site. Aerial photography from 1966 showed that there were only 21 homes or buildings located in a 1 square mile area containing the current plant footprint.18 It is possible that some of these structures were used by the workers in charge of building the power plant for business or domestic purposes.
Due to Austin’s growth, population in the area has increased substantially, and its demography has changed markedly. In 2014, the two Census tracts closest to the plant site totaled 16.5 square miles, a much smaller area not comparable to the 1970 Census tract the plant was located in. They contained an estimated 9,904 residents. Only 4% of them were white and non-Hispanic.
None of these people live adjacent to the plant however, with the closest residential buildings about 2,000 feet away from the generation facility.
Moreover, some land around Decker is primed for higher-end growth, which conflicts with the notion that only people who are poor or minorities would live near a gas plant. In 2014 and 2015, serious efforts were made to place two high-end golf courses on the Decker site about 3/4 of a mile east of the power plant, with a luxury hotel planned near the course.19 The City of Austin Housing Finance Corporation has planned a 208-acre Planned Unit Development only half a mile south of the site, with 80% of homes selling for market rates.20
D. UT Eckhardt District Energy Station – The University of Texas at Austin generates virtually all of its electricity on campus, with the waste heat from the generators employed for heating and cooling. It is one of the largest campus district energy systems in the U.S. It began with two 1.5 MW generators fueled by Texas lignite coal in 1929, and was converted to gas in the 1930s.21 It has expanded with campus growth to about 137 Megawatts today, in addition to its chilling stations.
UT-Austin was officially segregated until the Sweatt vs. Painter decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1950.
E. Natural Gas Utilities – Before the widespread use of natural gas supplied to cities by modern petroleum drilling, gas was manufactured by heating solid or liquid hydrocarbons. “Town gas,” as it was referred to, was first produced in the U.S. in 1816 in Baltimore, MD. This primitive form of synthetic gas became common in cities throughout the country. Its primary use was for lighting before the widespread use of electricity. Gas stoves and appliances did not become common until the early 20th century.
The earliest estimate of town gas use in Austin was in 1861.22 The city’s first exclusive license for a citywide town gas utility was granted to the Austin Gaslight and Coal Company in 1873.23 In 1874, a small piping system was begun that provided fuel for 44 city street lamps by 1878.24 By City ordinance, horses were forbidden to be hitched to the lamp posts. Gas service was also funded by state government for the capitol and Governor’s Mansion during this time period.
By 1886 electric lighting had established a small presence in Austin (40 street lamps), and the two fuels were competing for the lighting market.25 While electricity became the preferred mode, the use of gas lamps continued through the early part of the 1900s.
Austin’s town gas was extracted from wood, oil, or lignite coal mined in the region.26 The gas company was expanded in 1889 and had three manufacturing sites. The first plant was at 5th Street and West Avenue, with the gas derived from pine knots.
This plant was replaced by a “water gas” plant at 2nd Street and Colorado. In this plant, steam was passed through heated coke and a tank in which oil was sprayed on bricks heated to about 1,200˚ F. The steam picked up the gas from these hydrocarbons, which was purified to remove tars and ammonia.
Maps from 1900 showed single family homes were literally located across the street from the gas works, with eating establishments, boarding houses, offices, and lumberyards in close proximity as well. Census records of that year showed black, white, and Hispanic people living within one or two blocks of the plant, some literally in the same block.
This plant was succeeded by a coal gas plant at 3rd Street and Medina (probably about 1918), where lignite was heated in retort ovens, and steam was then passed through them to pick up the gas. After purification, the resulting coke from coal solids was sold for heating and industrial use. An additional water gas plant was also built at this site. Again, neighbors of various races and ethnicities lived in close proximity.
Natural gas from petroleum drilling was not provided to Austin until 1928. The original town gas utility that now provides natural gas service to Austin has changed owners five times and is now owned by Texas Gas Service, a division of Oneok, a national gas supply network.
Many decades after town gas production ceased, “oil” was discovered in 1985 during construction excavation for a modern office building at 100 North Congress.27 A substance resembling oil mixed with water was discovered in the northwest corner of the site in a 35-foot pit. At least 70,000 gallons were pumped out of the ground. It was believed to be waste from the old gasification site just west of the excavation. Gasification was crude compared to today’s technology, so there were dangerous chemicals discovered in the waste, including the poisons benzene, benzo(a)pyrene, toluene, and cyanide, some of which are confirmed or suspected carcinogens.28
Contaminated soil at the site was eventually removed, and the waste is not believed to have harmed the water table or leached into Lady Bird Lake. Still, this incident is another example of how our industrial past haunts us.
Today’s concepts of environmental siting for energy and industrial infrastructure are quite different from when electric and natural gas utilities began. The old plants were, by comparison, primitive, and often locally sited due to the limits of technology.
While the siting of Holly Street indicates racial insensitivity, the power plant at Decker Lake may indicate the first electric station owned by Austin that had some semblance of environmental consideration in that it was placed in a rural area far away from the general population.
“Your facts are completely accurate…and I don’t believe you. Are you sure you want to fight this battle?”
When editing this article, I sent it to several friends for review. While most comments were helpful, the most interesting was from a black woman who had lived in Austin for decades. Her bemusing comment was “Your facts are completely accurate…and I don’t believe you.” Confused, I asked if her conflicting statement was meant to be poetic. She replied that there have been so many incidents of racial discrimination in Austin’s (and the country’s) past that minorities are likely to be suspicious even when there was no proof of motive. She went on “Are you sure you want to fight this battle?”
The goal of this article, and its companion articles, is to look at the multifaceted complexities of the current regional electric system and how it can be changed to prevent pollution. If readers’ suspicions are overwhelmed by the past, no amount of research or facts will compensate. But I followed the evidence where it led.
1 “Power Plants,” Austin Energy Corporate Reports and Data Library, Power Supply. Online at https://data.austintexas.gov/Utility/Power-Plants/rrvf-v5xe
2 Criteria air pollutants are regulated by U.S. national standards limiting their concentration in ambient air.
3 2014 Emissions for Austin Energy power plants from Ravi Joseph, Consulting Engineer, Environmental Services, Austin Energy on February 1, 2016.
4 New Decker eerived from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Markets Program Data for 2014. The Decker plant’s 2014 NOx, SOx, and CO2 emissions were compared to the emissions rate for the lowest Texas kwh emitter, the Jack County Generation Facility. The new Decker plant was assumed to be 500 MW and operate at 75% capacity.
5 2014 Fayette coal plant emissions from Note 3.
New Decker Unit CO2 emissions based on 117.1 pounds per MMBTUs ÷ (1,000,000 BTUs÷6,028 BTUs/kwh) ÷ 2,000 pounds/ton X 500,000 kwh X 75% Capacity
6 Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Point Source Emissions Inventory, 2013. Online at https://www.tceq.texas.gov/airquality/point-source-ei/psei.html
7 Sanborn Map 1889, Sheet 5. See http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/sanborn/texas.html
8 Robbins, Paul, “Headwaters,” Austin Environmental Directory 2013, pp. 126-139.
9 Sanborn Map 1885, Sheet 1. See http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/sanborn/texas.html
10 Analysis of Austin Census information for Ward 1 from 1900.
11 Jones, Sam, “A Proud History…Electric Utility,” Employe, April 1973, p. 3.
12 Minutes of Austin City Council, August 25, 1927.
13 Texas Historical Commission. [Historic Marker Application: Seaholm Power Plant], text, August 13, 2007, p. 30. Online at texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth491905/m1/1/
14 Of 5,116 people listed in Tract 12, 468 were listed as negros or other races, and less than 250 people with Spanish surnames.
15 Minutes of the City Council, City of Austin, December 22, 1964, PDF pp. 13-16.
16 City of Austin V. Robert Mueller, et. al., “Final Judgement,” November 19, 1970.
17 Travis County Census Tract 22 for 1970 stated that of 5,022 people, 1,238 were black and 551 were Spanish speaking or with Spanish surnames. The Census does not regard language as a racial indicator, and Spanish speaking people can be of any race.
18 Review of 1966 flyover map, Section Q 24. Online at City of Austin GIS Map Downloads. Online at ftp://ftp.ci.austin.tx.us/GIS-Data/Regional/coa_gis.html
19 Lim, Andra, “Committee probes financial details of Decker Lake Golf proposal,” Austin Statesman, April 13, 2015. Online at http://www.mystatesman.com/news/local/committee-probes-financial-details-decker-lake-golf-proposal/3coAPrznX7mVXZWzBTjlIP/
20 Lim. Andra, “Colony Park at crossroads as area eyed for golf courses, development,” Austin Statesman, February 27, 2015. Online at http://www.mystatesman.com/news/local/colony-park-crossroads-area-eyed-for-golf-courses-development/VSZwWnFgN5bPYFvUp731CI/
21 International District Energy Association, UT-Austin’s Carl J Eckhardt Heating and Power Complex, October 3, 2012. Online at www.districtenergy.org/assets/pdfs/CHP_Case_Studies/UT-Austins-Carl-J-Eckhardt-Heating-and-Power-Complex-CCJ-Online2.pdf
22 1 Apperson, S.W., Gas in Austin, September 30, 1960, p. 1. On file at the Austin History Center.
23 Barkley, Mary Starr, History of Travis County and Austin 1839-1899 (Austin, TX: The Steck Company, 1963), p. 248.
25 Ibid., p. 249.
26 Footnote 1 this section, pp. 2-3.
27 Cullick, Robert, “Downtown Oil Strike,” Austin American Statesman, July 18, 1985, p. B1.
28 McCann, Bill, “Waste study digs into history of coal-gas sites,” Austin American Statesman, October 12, 1986, p. B2.