A new study released Jan. 17 by environmental groups shows groundwater contamination at every coal ash storage site in Texas subject to an Obama-era U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule. The study used recently released, publicly available data to examine coal ash basins at 16 coal-fired power plants in the state and found that all of them are contaminating nearby groundwater with unsafe levels of arsenic and other toxic pollutants.
Produced by the Environmental Integrity Project in cooperation with Earthjustice and Beyond Texas, the findings are similar to previous reports documenting widespread groundwater pollution at unlined coal ash basins in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Illinois. Those reports were also based on recently released publicly available data.
Coal-fired power plant operators generally dispose of ash and other residuals of coal by dumping it into dry landfills or mixing it with water and channeling it into wet surface impoundments known as basins. The problem is that those basins are at risk of structural failure and can contaminate the underlying soil and groundwater. Coal ash contains numerous hazardous pollutants including arsenic and lead, which can severely harm humans, fish and other wildlife.
The 70-page study drew upon utility-reported groundwater monitoring data required by the EPA's 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals, or CCR rule, which for the first time established minimum federal standards for the safe handling and storage of coal ash at active or recently closed wet coal ash basins and dry landfills. Under the rule, coal plant operators were required to publicly post the testing data online starting in March 2018.
The latest report provides detailed information on all 16 of the state's affected coal plants, showing that 13 of those plants reported unsafe levels of arsenic with concentrations exceeding safe drinking water standards by 10 times or more in some cases. The study also found that 14 of the 16 plants have unsafe levels of cobalt — with concentrations up to 100 times or more the safe drinking water standard in some cases — and most of the coal plants also reported unsafe levels of boron and lithium.
All active unlined coal ash basins across the country are required to close by 2020 as the result of an August 2018 ruling issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The court found that provisions of the 2015 CCR rule allowing unlined and clay-lined surface impoundments to receive coal ash until a leak is detected were unlawful. A closure can be performed by excavating the coal ash or capping the ash in place if certain criteria are met.
Abel Russ, a senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project and co-author of the study, said Jan. 17 that the operators of two coal-fired generators — the active Welsh plant and now-retired Monticello ST plant — plan to cap ash at those sites in place. "This isn't going to do anything to restore groundwater quality, and you're going to see contamination for decades," he said on a press call.
A spokeswoman for Southwestern Electric Power Co., which operates the Welsh plant, said Jan. 17 the utility is proceeding with closure plans at the site that are consistent with the CCR rule. The company "is committed to being a good neighbor and operating our facilities in a way that meets or exceeds all regulations and protects public safety and health," she said in an email.
Vistra Energy Corp., which operates the Monticello plant, was unavailable for comment. A spokesman with the Texas Environmental Quality Commission declined to comment on the report, adding that the state is in the process of developing a rule to create its own program for coal ash management.
Under the Trump administration, the EPA in July 2018 finalized changes to the CCR rule that largely grant states more oversight of the storage of ash from coal-fired power plants and gives companies more time to shut down noncompliant sites. Environmental groups have challenged the changes in a lawsuit filed in the D.C. Circuit.