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This land is coal ash land

January 17, 2019

Coal is Texas’s second largest electricity producer after natural gas, but its trajectory is headed the opposite direction. Unlike gas, coal isn’t booming, but instead preparing to leave its legacy behind. After much of the air pollution dissipates and the surface mines get filled in, that legacy may be one of coal ash.

For decades power companies have discarded this toxic byproduct of burning coal in the most convenient, and affordable, way possible: by dumping it into nearby pits or lagoons.

A new report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) reveals that coal ash pollutants are leaking into groundwater surrounding all 16 of Texas’s power plants for which data are available, with unsafe levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium, and other pollutants seeping from the dumps.

The worst groundwater contamination in Texas from coal ash can be found south of San Antonio, at the San Miguel Electric Co-Op power plant near Jourdanton, according to utility data made public for the first time in 2018 because of new federal coal ash regulations.

There, the groundwater beneath a cattle ranch owned for five generations by the Peeler family is being polluted by leakage from the power company’s three coal ash waste ponds. Arsenic (a carcinogen) is in the groundwater beneath the farm exceeding EPA’s maximum contaminant level by up to 12 times; and cadmium, which causes kidney and bone damage, exceeds safe levels by 130 fold, among other pollutants.

“The toxic pollution leaking from these coal ash dumps is threatening our family’s ranch and our heritage,” said Jason Peeler, who helps run the Peeler Ranch. “We’ve asked the power company to stop polluting our land and clean up the mess. But their response has been to threaten to seize our land through eminent domain instead of cleaning it up. It’s outrageous — and an example of how coal ash pollution can cause real damage.”

Here is the backstory. In 1953, the Peeler family leased a portion of their large property to allow surface mining for lignite coal; and later, the construction of a 400-megawatt coal-fired power plant by the San Miguel Co-Op.

Under the terms of the lease agreement, after the mining stopped, the power company was supposed to clean up the mess and restore the land to a healthy condition. When the mining ended in 2004, however, the company failed to keep its promise, and instead kept using the land as a pit for the dumping of power plant’s ash waste. This dump is now leaking a plume of toxic chemicals into the groundwater under the Peeler ranch, poisoning the soil, killing vegetation, and likely causing a fish kill in a farm pond.

To the family, it has been like watching a cancer spread slowly through a relative and not knowing how to cure it.

The Peelers are in court with the San Miguel Co-Op, fighting for the survival of their 25,000-acre ranch. Their worst fear is the company’s threat to claim eminent domain authority and attempt to condemn about a third of the ranch that is contaminated, instead of investing the money to clean up the pollution. Were this to happen, the Peelers would lose a chunk of their family history.

Texas has long been sensitive to the needs of the energy industry. But it also proudly champions property rights. Across the state, property owners like the Peelers will witness the gradual destruction of one of Texas’ most precious resources — clean, drinkable groundwater — if state regulators fail to stand up to the threat of coal ash contamination.

Stronger state regulations are needed to require the cleanup of leaking ash dumps. And, in the long run, Texas needs to continue its shift away from coal and towards more clean energy sources such as wind and solar.

Ilan Levin is the Texas Director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

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