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TexasTops List of States at Risk from Toxic Coal-Ash Waste

March 12, 2009       

TexasTops List of States at Risk from Toxic Coal-Ash Waste

Texas Rep. Eddie Rodriguez Files Bill That Will Improve Regulation, Protect Health and Environment

AUSTIN – Texas is the worst state in the nation in terms of toxic coal-ash waste that would result from both proposed and existing dirty coal-fired power plants, according to a new Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report that will be released with the participation of Public Citizen’s Texas office. Despite the fact that coal combustion waste contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury, it is not regulated as a hazardous waste by either the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

“Coal waste represents a serious problem for Texas. I have legislation in the House that would improve regulation of coal combustion waste,” said Texas State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D- Austin). “Texas needs a thorough assessment of current coal combustion waste sites, and plants permitted after this legislation goes into effect should dispose of coal ash in class one hazardous waste sites permitted by TCEQ.”  

Texas ranks first in the nation in ash production expected from new coal plants and first in toxic metals from those plants. The eight coal plants proposed in Texas analyzed by NRDC are projected to generate 4 million tons of contaminated coal ash, including 4,231 tons of toxic metals. Due to methodology, NRDC’s report analyzes only the eight proposed plants that will use pulverized coal or lignite and not the four that will use petroleum coke.

“Coal combustion waste represents yet another reason we should not be building new coal plants. In addition to the threat of climate change, sulfur dioxide and mercury, coal combustion waste is a gift that will keep on giving for generations,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “With 12 proposed dirty coal-fired plants on the books, Texas is ground zero for the hidden threat from coal ash. Disasters like the Kingston, Tenn. coal sludge spill dramatize the cost of unsafe coal waste disposal practices, but no state stands to lose as much in terms of human and environmental health as Texas. In Texas, the risk from coal waste is hidden and slow, as these wastes can travel underground to contaminate our water reservoirs. A 2007 EPA document called Coal Combustion Waste Damage Case Assessments reports how back in the 70s, there were a number of instances in north Texas where coal ash pits overflowed into nearby lakes. It took 20 years to clean up those lakes enough so that the fish were safe to eat again.”

The NRDC’s new report details the potential risk if all of Texas’ proposed coal plants are built, but coal ash disposal techniques already represent a significant health and safety problem in Texas. Texas ranks first in the country for contaminated coal waste, with 13.45 million tons of waste reported to the U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2005. The state also ranks first in toxic metals contaminating the waste, with 8,915 tons of toxic metals, based on NRDC estimates. 

Texas disposes of much of the coal waste from its 22 coal plants in landfills or unlined ponds, where toxic metals can contaminate surface and groundwater sources and cause a wide range of harmful health impacts.

Travis Brown, president of Neighbors for Neighbors, a grassroots citizen’s group, is all too aware of this problem. Neighbors for Neighbors residents in Lee and Bastrop counties have been fighting the coal ash disposal methods of Alcoa Corporation and Luminant (formerly TXU) for many years.

“We’re greatly concerned that disposal of coal combustion waste in our community is already contaminating groundwater, or will in the future. Without federal action to protect communities like mine, our surface and groundwater remain at risk. As long as our drinking water is in danger, so is the health of my neighbors,” said Brown. “Advanced air quality equipment ensures that dangerous emissions are captured from the coal combustion process, but if the disposal of that waste is not adequately regulated, we are just dumping it right back into our watersheds. That’s like vacuuming a room and then shaking the bag into your drinking well.”

On Monday, the EPA launched a comprehensive inquiry of coal ash storage facilities. The EPA requested information about the design, contents and record of inspections and historic spills from the estimated 300 coal ash ponds nationwide. EPA officials have also indicated that the Obama administration will propose new regulations for coal combustion waste by the end of the year.

On Tuesday, a coalition of more than 100 national and grassroots environmental organizations, including Public Citizen, joined forces to urge EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to regulate coal combustion waste. Public Citizen has urged the EPA to phase out the wet storage or disposal of coal combustion waste, and to ensure that new regulations also ensure the safe disposal of dry ash.

State legislation such as Rodriguez’s proposed bill would put Texas ahead of the game by ensuring that all waste from newly proposed plants is safely disposed of and provide the information Texas needs to address the problem of coal combustion waste.

In conjunction with the new analysis, NRDC has launched a new Web site that includes a state-by-state breakdown of the total amount annually of waste, including toxic metals, from existing and proposed plants.

READ the report.