The Coleto Creek Power Plant in Goliad was among 16 coal plants in Texas that contaminated nearby groundwater with pollutants linked to coal ash at levels that would be unsafe for human consumption, according to a report released by the Environmental Integrity Project.
Coal combustion residuals, known as coal ash, are byproducts of the combustion of coal, and they contain contaminants.
The Coleto Creek plant, off Farm-to-Market Road 2987 in Fannin, has a 190-acre regulated ash pond on-site as well as a 10-acre secondary ash pond immediately adjacent to the larger pond. The primary ash pond does not meet liner criteria set by the Environmental Protection Agency to help prevent contaminants from leaching from coal ash units and contaminating groundwater, so the pond is classified as unlined.
Liners are underground barriers made of plastic or other waterproof materials that prevent coal ash surface impoundments, in this case ponds, from leaking.
More than 470 coal-fired electric utilities burned more than 800 million tons of coal, generating about 110 million tons of coal ash, in 2012 in 47 states and Puerto Rico, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The agency created the first federal regulation for the disposal of coal ash in 2015. Dubbed the Coal Ash Rule, it established groundwater monitoring and several new regulations for coal ash dumps after improper disposal was linked to harming ground and surface water and the air.
The rule included mandates for power companies to make their groundwater monitoring data available to the public for the first time in 2018. The Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit, used this data for its report.
The research group advocates for the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to impose stricter regulations for coal waste disposal.
Elevated concentrations of multiple pollutants – arsenic, boron, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, thallium – were detected in groundwater wells near the primary ash pond at the plant, according to the report.
“The pattern of contamination suggests that either the coal pile is contaminating groundwater or there are old coal ash disposal areas somewhere outside of the primary ash pond,” the nonprofit found.
Meranda Cohn, director of media relations for Luminant, a subsidiary of Vistra Energy, the plant’s owner, said the report is not statistically valid because the data it uses is from initial stages of groundwater monitoring detection under the coal ash rule and “conflates requirements for groundwater with that of drinking water.”
“It attempts to create confusion, suspicion and fear rather than present the facts,” she said.
The report used the EPA’s presumptive protective standards for each pollutant, except for boron and sulfate because they do not have groundwater protection standards under the Coal Ash Rule, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.
The EPA’s drinking water standards were used for those two pollutants, which Cohn said is misleading because groundwater and drinking water requirements are different.
Goliad County relies on the Coleto Creek plant for both power and funds that supply most of its public services despite a steady decline in its taxable value.
The plant’s taxable value in 2017 was $159,507,198, according to a previous Advocate report. Its taxable value for 2018 and 2019 was $155 million or about 4.5 million less, said Richard Miller, chief appraiser for the Goliad County Appraisal District.
The plant paid an estimated $3.1 million in local taxes last year and is slated to pay about $2.9 million this year, Miller estimated.
Vistra Energy closed three coal plants in other parts of Texas, which were among many that have shuttered across the country in recent years because of decreasing demand and competition from increasingly cheaper natural gas and renewable resources.
Between 2010 and the first quarter of 2019, U.S. power companies announced the retirement of more than 546 coal-fired power units, totaling about 102 gigawatts of generating capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Plant owners plan to retire an additional 17 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity by 2025, according to the administration’s Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory.
But Cohn said no plans are in the works to close this plant.
“Luminant has no current plans to close the Coleto Creek Power Plant, which provides efficient and reliable electric power for Texas,” she said.