Multiple pollutants from coal ash disposal facilities exceed federal groundwater standards at all 16 coal plants in Texas, according to a report released Thursday by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).
Almost none of the coal ash ponds are lined, allowing toxic levels of arsenic, boron, cobalt and lithium, among other contaminants to infiltrate into groundwater at those sites, EIP reported. An exemption to federal coal combustion residual (CCR) regulations allows inactive ash facilities that were drained before 2015 to avoid its requirements.
Texas produces more coal ash than any other state, according to Lisa Evans, senior counsel at Earthjustice, and one year produced more than 3 million tons. "That's equivalent to burying the Texas football field one mile high in ash every year," she said during a press conference releasing the report.
The EIP report is the latest to detail the persistent nationwide issue of coal ash disposal.
The analysis comes a month after an Earthjustice report found that 67 coal plants across 22 states were in violation of federal groundwater rules. The data from both reports come from requirements under the CCR rules that utilities disclose their groundwater monitoring data publicly.
Federal law exempts coal ash "designated for official reuse," from regulation, which in Texas includes putting the waste into old coal mines, according to Evans.
"On a routine basis, trucks haul the coal ash from the plant to an old mine where the coal ash is dumped into the old fractured mine pits with piles of ash over 100 feet high from ground elevation," said Jason Peeler, a local rancher whose land is adjacent to coal ash ponds operated by the San Miguel Electric Cooperative, reported to have the highest levels of contamination in the state.
"The pits are open to the elements too, so the wind can blow the ash onto nearby lands and then rain can infiltrate the coal ash," he said at the press conference.
Contaminants in coal ash vary from cancer-causing arsenic, to lithium, which causes neurological problems, and cobalt, which can be harmful to the heart, blood and other organs. Twelve of the sixteen plants report unsafe levels of arsenic and thirteen report toxic levels of cobalt.
"The lack of protective regulations in Texas and the high volume of toxic waste has led historically to groundwater and surface water contamination throughout the state," said Evans. "Coal ash poisoned the water in the reservoirs, caused major fish kills and contaminated fish with high levels of selenium that lasted for over a decade and prompted fish consumption advisories, particularly for children and pregnant women."
Because all the plants reported unsafe levels of pollution, the report said utilities should move past the first CCR phase, detection, and onto the assessment phase. That requires corrective measures, such as excavating and moving the waste to new basins lined with plastic.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) rollback to the 2015 CCR rule, finalized in July, made deadlines under the regulation less clear, according to Abel Russ, senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project and co-author of the report. Because of that, most utilities in Texas have yet to move on from the detection phase, he said.
The status of the EPA’s attempted rollback of the CCR rule is also unclear. In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the original CCR rule did not go far enough to protect groundwater, specifically citing concerns over unlined ash ponds, which are still allowed to receive ash and do not require monitoring if they were drained — or “dewatered” — before 2015.
Russ said the conflicting July rollback and August court ruling make future clean up requirements and regulations uncertain.
"I'm not sure what the EPA is going to do now, because they have to try to harmonize two things that are inconsistent and incompatible," he said.