HOUSTON — Orchard owner Leonard Baca had been watching his pecan trees slowly die for 12 years when he went into a washroom, put a gun in this mouth and killed himself.
The frustrated 73-year-old had spent thousands of dollars on technology and improvements to try to resolve the problem at his Central Texas ranch without ever learning what was killing the trees that had supported three generations of his family. Now, 18 years after his death, Baca's son-in-law, Harvey Hayek, believes he's solved the mystery: Sulfur dioxide pollution from a nearby coal-fired power plant has slowly killed two-thirds of his family's 250-acre pecan orchard.
On Monday, Hayek and other pecan growers held a news conference in Austin to demand compensation from the Lower Colorado River Authority, which operates the plant, and the city. They also want research done on what and how much pollution is being emitted now and how much will be discharged after the plant installs equipment aimed at reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide, a component of acid rain.
"I've got several little 2-year-old grandkids and my own kids," said Hayek, who joined the family business in 1969 after marrying Baca's daughter, Carol. "If this wouldn't have happened, they could all have been enjoying the pecans. They could have had a family business and continued it on for who knows how many years. It's all been taken away from us."
The river authority said it is investing $445 million to install "scrubbers," which will cut the plant's sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 90 percent. In a letter to the Texas Pecan Alliance, the authority said it "cannot make commitments for unlimited compensation to your group."
It did, however, promise to review a report submitted by Sierra Club scientist Neil Carman, which said up to 15,000 trees have been destroyed by sulfur dioxide pollution. Evidence points to the power plant as the culprit, Carman said, because it is the only and main source of pollution in the county, 72 percent of the air pollution in the county is sulfur dioxide and the pecan leaves have characteristic marks of sulfur dioxide injury. Also, he noted, research published in 2004 by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System showed pecan trees were especially sensitive to sulfur dioxide.
"It's a mess," Carman said. "There's nothing else that would account for it."
Sulfur dioxide's danger to vegetation – and pecan trees specifically – is well-documented. The Georgia Power Company settled a series of lawsuits in the early 1970s with pecan growers who accused its plant of killing their trees. Damage can happen as far as 30 miles away, the Alabama report said.
The Hayek orchard planted in 1900 in Ellinger was one of the first in the state and produced 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of pecans annually, helping make Texas the third-largest producer of pecans in the country after Georgia and New Mexico. Three generations worked under the trees' cool shade, and the winter harvest provided work for corn farmers who were done with their crop in the late summer.
"Everything was merry. We were always able to buy new equipment and we got some of the first mechanical harvesters in the area in 1975," Hayek recalled.
The coal-fired power plant began operating in 1979. Hayek could see it from his farm. In 1980, production declined for the first time.
"And it kept going downhill," Hayek said.
Neighboring pecan farmers had similar problems. The county brought in university researchers, who told them to change their fertilization technique and irrigate. They did both to no avail.
Tree limbs began falling. With each one, Hayek saw his hearty father-in-law lose a little more will to fight.
When the first tree died, it was as though a family member had passed away, he said.
"It's come to the point where some years if we want to have some Christmas cookies or pecan pie around our house, I've actually had to go to the HEB grocery store to buy some pecans," Hayek said. "It puts a knot in my stomach. It actually makes me feel sick."
Proving the power plant's emissions are responsible will require extensive and expensive research. But Leo Lombardini, a professor of horticulture at Texas A&M University who has visited Hayek's farm, thinks it could be worthwhile.
"I could see pecan trees that were dying or dead, which is very rare. Pecan trees die only if for some reason they have no access to water," Lombardini said. "In this case, I don't think that was the issue."
At 60, Hayek knows he will live out his years digging and maintaining water wells – the career he began after the orchard could no longer support his family. Even if he replanted today, he would never get to pick fruit from his trees. It takes nearly 25 years for a pecan tree to produce a marketable harvest.