CHRISTINE – Amid the golden acres of rolling grassland, there are acres on the Peeler ranch where trees and grass won’t grow.
“This land should not be dead,” said Jason Peeler, 51, standing near a fence separating his family’s land from the coal-powered San Miguel Electric Coop power plant. From much of the family’s property, the massive plant with its towering scaffold-enclosed facade dominates the wide horizon.
But the lifeless patches of sticky mud there and elsewhere on the land, which has remained in the family for five generations, are a mere hint of the poison the Peelers say lies beneath.
That contamination has leached into the ranch’s soil and groundwater from coal ash in on-site disposal wells and deposits buried in land leased from the family, said Peeler, who described the cocktail of metals as a “periodic table of bad stuff.”
The family contends that point in court documents filed in Atascosa County in August 2018.
But Mike Nasi, spokesman for San Miguel, disagreed.
“The groundwater where constituents were found is not used for drinking and the comparison the Peelers are referencing is to drinking water standards,” said Nasi, who added the plant has legally complied with coal ash disposal requirements. “Moreover, the groundwater in question is impacted by nature and other factors beyond San Miguel’s control and is still being studied by qualified experts.”
San Miguel sells electricity to member-customers South Texas Electric Cooperative and Victoria Electric Cooperative. The plant also provides power for Karnes Electric Cooperative, of which Peeler is a member and customer himself.
“That’s kind of ironic,” Peeler said.
Although the family has long held suspicions that the power plant was poisoning their land, those suspicions were confirmed, Peeler said, in March 2018 with the release of federally mandated data collected by the power plant itself.
Changes made in 2015 to the federal groundwater monitoring program known as the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule, show soil and groundwater samples to contain unsafe levels of metals found in coal ash. That data has also given the family vital support in their legal dispute with the power plant, they said.
Decades ago, Peelers began leasing their parts of their property to the power plant. But in recent years, Peeler said, the plant has begun disposing of the ash in a way that has allowed it to enter their land.
On the thousands of acres owned by the Peelers, the family raises cattle for beef. Peeler serves on the board of directors for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. But after he learned of the data released in March, they stopped allowing the animals onto affected areas.
With about 24 percent of Texas’ electricity generated by the burning of coal, the state leads the nation in mining lignite coal – the dirtiest and lowest-grade of the fossil fuel.
On parts of the Peeler property, bits of lignite, a dark, oily rock that crumbles easily in the hand, can be found readily.
The San Miguel facility is just one of 16 such lignite-burning power plants in Texas that are required to self monitor groundwater for contaminants leaked from the ash. According to that federally mandated data, all 16 plants were found to be leaking contaminants at unsafe levels.
Boron, a naturally occurring element that is toxic to humans and aquatic life, was found at unsafe levels in 25 wells. Arsenic was found at unsafe levels in 14 wells by up to 12 times.
Cobalt, which can damage internal organs, was measured at levels more than 100 times the safe level. One well contained 1,000 times the amount deemed safe.
“In short, there is no question that coal ash at San Miguel has created a serious groundwater hazard,” states a report authored by the Environmental Integrity Project, a national advocacy group.
Closer to the Crossroads, groundwater near the Coleto Creek Power Station, another lignite-burning plant near Fannin in Goliad County, has been found to contain high concentrations of arsenic and cobalt.
“The groundwater at Coleto Creek is unsafe to drink,” the report states.
After reading the data, the Peelers attempted to oust the power plant from their property despite a lease agreement, but the company then obtained a restraining order allowing them back. The Peelers said they also worry the plant may attempt to seize the contaminated land rather than spend money on cleaning it up, through eminent domain.
San Miguel representatives denied that accusation.
“We would much prefer to do as we have always done, which is to work closely with our landowners,” Nasi said.
While Peeler admits the groundwater and soil may not affect surrounding populations, his concerns lie with protecting the land he has been entrusted by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who bought the property in the early 1900s.
And his eldest, Ben Peeler, an able 22-year-old with a wide grin and wider Stetson hat, said he hopes to continue that tradition.
Although the Peelers plan to soon file a lawsuit – this time in federal court – they said the power plant can easily remedy the dispute. After all, like many ranchers, Peeler was raised to leave a place better than he found it – a common courtesy that should also apply to the plant, he said.
“Clean it up,” Peeler said.