BASTROP, Texas — Along a stretch of Highway 21, in a pastoral, hilly region of Texas, is a vegetative wasteland. Trees are barren, or covered in gray, dying foliage and peeling bark. Fallen, dead limbs litter the ground where pecan growers and ranchers have watched trees die slow deaths.
Visible above the horizon is what many plant specialists, environmentalists and scientists believe to be the culprit: the Fayette Power Project — a coal-fired power plant that for nearly 30 years has operated mostly without equipment designed to decrease emissions of sulfur dioxide, a component of acid rain.
The plant's operator and the state's environmental regulator deny sulfur dioxide pollution is to blame for the swaths of plant devastation across central Texas. But evidence collected from the Appalachian Mountains to New Mexico indicates sulfur dioxide pollution kills vegetation, especially pecan trees. Pecan growers in Albany, Ga., have received millions of dollars in an out-of-court settlement with a power plant whose sulfur dioxide emissions harmed their orchards.
Now, extensive tree deaths are being reported elsewhere in Texas, home to 19 coal-fired power plants — more than any other state.
The Fayette Power Project sits on a 10-square-mile site about 60 miles southeast of Austin, near where horticulturist Jim Berry, who owns a wholesale nursery in Grand Saline, Texas, describes a 30-mile stretch of Highway 21 as a place where "the plant community was just devastated."
"There was an environmental catastrophe," Berry said recently.
"It wasn't just the pecan groves," he said after driving through the area. "It was the entire ecosystem that was under duress."
Pecan grower Harvey Hayek said he has watched his once-prosperous, 3,000-tree orchard in Ellinger, just south of the Fayette plant, dwindle to barely 1,000 trees. Skeletal trunks and swaths of yellowed prairie grass make up what had been a family orchard so thick the sun's rays barely broke through the thick canopy of leaves.
"Everywhere you look, it's just dead, dead, dead," Hayek said.