Texas coal plants are mass-polluting groundwater with dangerous toxins
Virtually every coal power plant in Texas is leaking pollution into nearby groundwater, imperiling the environment and the health of neighboring communities, according to new data analysis released this week.
According to a new report published Thursday by the non-profit, non-partisan Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), toxic coal ash pollutants from coal-fired power plants in Texas are leaking into groundwater around the state. Arsenic, cobalt, lithium, and a range of other pollutants are seeping from 100 percent of Texas power plants coal ash sites for which reports are available.
Texas receives 24 percent of its electricity from coal, with 16 coal plants out of at least 19 in the state currently reporting coal ash data. Texas is the leading U.S. generator of both oil and wind power, and while it produces far less coal, the fuel — and its pollution — remains a lagging issue for residents.
Coal ash is the toxic waste left behind after fuel is burned and is composed of a range of deadly pollutants, including carcinogens and neurotoxins. When it comes into contact with groundwater, it becomes particularly dangerous for human health, leading to diseases like cancer, and for the environment, imperiling aquatic life along with drinking water.
“Since coal-fired power plants depend on a reliable water source for steam, these pits are often located near waterways,” the report explains. “This makes it more likely that hazardous elements in coal ash… will leach into groundwater, poisoning drinking water aquifers and harming aquatic life in nearby surface waters.”
With minimal exceptions, the EIP report also notes that no coal ash ponds meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) liner requirements, meaning they are unlined or virtually unlined. Effectively, there are no sufficient barriers in place between the coal ash and the ground to keep the toxins from leaking, posing a deadly problem in a state plagued by coal ash.
Coal ash pollution is a problem nation-wide. In 2018, the first federal regulation on the disposal of coal ash came into effect, mandating that companies make their groundwater pollution data publicly available. That regulation underpins the new report, which found that in Texas, 13 of 16 reporting coal plants have unsafe levels of arsenic in nearby groundwater, with levels at ten times the EPA Maximum Containment Level amount. Ten plants reported unsafe levels of boron — which is deadly to humans and aquatic life — while 14 reported unsafe levels of cobalt and 11 reported unsafe levels of lithium.
Despite not being a top national producer of coal, “Texas often has the dubious distinction of generating more ash than any other state in the United States,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney with the non-profit Earthjustice, during a press call on Thursday.
As the report details, the elevated toxin levels threaten communities nearby, including a large ranch belonging to the Peeler family, an hour south of San Antonio. The Peelers say that coal ash associated with the San Miguel Electric Co-Op is polluting their ranch and imperiling a home that has been in their family for five generations.
“We know from the company’s own data that the groundwater under our ranch is contaminated,” Jason Peeler, 51, told reporters on Thursday.
In response to outcry from the Peelers, the power plant has been working to seize the rest of the ranch through eminent domain. The family, meanwhile, has concerns about the impact of the toxins on livestock.
“We worry about people not wanting to buy our beef,” said Peeler, who also expressed concern over the health of his family while noting that there has been no indication that anyone has gotten sick due to exposure.
Under the 2015 federal Coal Ash Rule, the current leaking isn’t necessarily illegal. A long process, including background and assessment monitoring of groundwater, is involved in order to address the situation and ultimately trigger site cleanup.
Attorneys also added during Thursday’s press call that many coal plants are shuttering before the cleanup process can even begin, a trend that is likely to continue, making it unclear if anyone will be held accountable for the pollution.
Risks to local communities from coal plants in Texas come at a time of decline for the industry. Three coal plants addressed by the report shuttered in Texas last year, as they did across the country.
But President Donald Trump has worked to revive coal, all the while rolling back environmental regulations. The EPA has weakened cleanup standards and pushed back site remediation deadlines, in addition to granting states the power to oversee their own coal ash programs, rather than the federal government.
A preliminary version of a Texas coal ash program drafted by state legislators in August 2018, for instance, was widely panned as insufficient, as it failed to fully address protecting groundwater and aquatic life, among other points of contention. The proposal has since been removed from the website of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), albeit with a follow-up likely in the future, potentially this year.
Proponents for a shift away from coal in Texas highlighted the Lone Star State’s other options. Oil and gas greatly shape the Texas economy, but the state, which runs almost entirely on its own electrical grid, is also seeing a major boom in renewable energy, something that could ultimately shift its energy dependence.
Last November, researchers at Houston’s Rice University released a report that found a combination of wind and solar energy could work in sync with one another to power the state. While their findings don’t indicate that Texas could run entirely on renewables just yet, they do highlight the state’s unique position when it comes to more sustainable energy opportunities.
“Taken together, our results suggest that Texas renewable power production can be made more reliable by combining resources of different types and locations,” the researchers note.
While renewable energy it isn’t waste-free, transitioning away from coal and towards energy alternatives like wind and solar would greatly decrease greenhouse gas emissions. It could also help mitigate the hazards posed by pollutants like coal ash. For environmental advocates, that shift can’t come soon enough.
“We recognize that we have to stop creating this waste and stop using coal altogether,” said Chrissy Mann, who works with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Pointing to the growing “climate crisis” and the coal industry’s contributions to emissions, Mann drew a parallel between the decline of coal and a swift uptick the affordability of renewable technology in Texas, with wind power jobs also rapidly expanding.
“Market forces are clearly ready to support the transition from coal to clean energy,” she said.