Dr. Robert Haley, who is in the running for a Green Source DFW Sustainable Leadership award, has been a key ally in the fight for cleaner air in North Texas. Photo courtesy of Downwinders at Risk.
Oct. 30, 2017
A Dallas doctor has been hailed by environmentalists as a powerful ally in the fight for clean air in North Texas.
Dr. Robert Haley, an epidemiologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, made it his goal to raise issues of air quality and public health among his fellow doctors 14 years ago. He succeeded. Texas physicians developed policy on environmental health and took a unified stand before the public and officials.
They helped to forestall construction of 11 new coal-fired power plants.
Haley also led studies that revealed the health and financial costs of North Texas’ poor air quality, ranked the 8th to 9th worst among U.S. metropolitan areas, in recent years.
"Dr. Robert Haley has been a tireless opponent of the East Texas coal plants and the pollution they release for many years," said Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk, the 23-year-old clean air advocacy group.
Now nominated for a GreenSource DFW environmental award, Dr. Haley paused to look back at the fight for clean air that he took on in 2003, as the newly elected president of the Dallas County Medical Society.
Haley's commitment came from his daily work.
Dr. Robert Haley testifies at a TCEQ hearing in Arlington January 2016.
“I spend a month or two of the year supervising student interns who care for patients at UT Southwestern Medical Center…and 10 months doing medical research on air quality and health,” said Haley.
His expertise is epidemiology, or public health, and analyzing and designing health studies of human populations.
When Dr. Haley took over at DCMS, urban Texans, especially in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, were living with high levels of ground-level ozone. And with rising incidence of asthma and ER visits for respiratory disease. Ozone from pollutants from cars, power plants, refineries and other sources, reacting chemically in sunlight, was a known cause.
“When we surveyed doctors, there was overwhelming support to study air quality….It crossed political parties. We studied publications by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, EPA, scientific papers. Most work was through the Dallas County Medical Society… Over 12 years a consensus of Texas doctors formulated written policy passed by the Texas Medical Association.”
Some 45,000 doctors backed the Association’s extensive body of policy.
“It covered adverse effects of air pollution to patients and the main sources and, later on, how the sources could be controlled and alternative power sources”
In 2014, when the Texas Medical Association opposed TXU’s plan to build 11 coal-fired power plants, a heated campaign by citizens and environmentalists was on. TXU, later known as Energy Future Holdings, ultimately filed for bankruptcy and abandoned plans for eight of the carbon dioxide-belching plants.
In 2015, Haley led one of two studies by University of North Texas and UT Southwestern, commissioned by Downwinders at Risk, that spelled out the real costs of local air quality that fails to meet the federal standard. Texas air had failed standards under the Clean Air Act for 25 years.
In DFW alone, non-compliance costs the public more than $500 million a year in hospital care, lost work and school days and air pollution related deaths. For the 34 counties north and west of the East Texas legacy coal plants, researchers estimated that cutting ozone levels by 5 ppb would save 97 deaths and $650 million every year.
Listen to Dr. Robert Haley's testimony before TCEQ at a hearing in Arlington in January 2016.
In January 2016, Haley testified at a crowded, heated TCEQ hearing on the agency’s “state improvement plan” to meet federal air quality standards. He urged TCEQ representatives to include in DFW’s plan emission limits for five East Texas coal-fired power plants whose exhaust blows into DFW on prevailing winds, adding 5 ppb of ozone to the air.
Testimony by Haley and a score of environmental groups eventually convinced both Dallas County Commissioners and the Dallas City Council to petition TCEQ. The effort extended to other DFW communities.
Nonetheless, the agency didn’t comply.
Progress has marched on, anyway. Two of the plants east and south of DFW, Monticello and Big Brown, are scheduled to close in 2018, generation company Luminant announced. In addition, Luminant Energy plans to close its two-unit Sandow Power Plant in Milam County, near Austin.
“I’m happy to see a victory,” said Haley.“They had been buying up lower-cost generating capacity from natural gas and renewable-powered plants.”
What about the Trump administration’s recent decision to reverse the 2015 Clean Power Plan established under President Obama, that would have pushed states to leave coal in favor of energy sources with fewer carbon emissions?
“Doesn’t matter. At the price you can sell energy for, coal is a money-loser now. The market is killing coal.”
The health studies by DCMS, TMA and partner universities inspired Haley to change energy sources at home, too.
“Forty-four solar panels at the house, and all LED lights, tight-fitting windows. We’re saving money on bills.”
The public impact is what he talks most about, though.
“We raised a lot of awareness in the populace to get small ‘d’ democracy,” he says. “We’re really happy when power plants see clear to make the change. But we’ve still got some power plants to go.”
Winners of Green Source DFW Sustainable Leadership Awards will be announced on Nov. 9 at the Dallas Arboretum. Buy tickets.