After 20 years of dodging multiple groundwater export projects, many Lee and Bastrop county residents are acutely aware of the threats posed by over-pumping of our aquifers.
A contested case hearing for LCRA’s proposed permit to pump 25,000 acre-feet/year (about 8 billion gal/yr) has been set for October 2019. The Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund is assisting fifty landowner families who are protesting the projected impacts of that project on their groundwater and property rights.
SAWDF will hold an important community meeting on Saturday, February 23, from 5-7 p.m. at the Bastrop Public Library.
2 new concerns raised
“We are used to asking our groundwater district to sustainably manage local aquifers, and to protect groundwater and the Colorado River from over-pumping,” said Michele Gangnes, one of the founders of SAWDF. “Now two recent studies have raised new concerns about our groundwater.”
This is the first of two articles on the new reports. Next week’s article will focus on a recent study about the risk of subsidence in Texas aquifers from groundwater pumping, especially in Lee and Bastrop counties.
Unsafe contamination at power plant
A report released in January reveals serious groundwater contamination concerns from coal ash disposal around 16 Texas coal-fired power plants. The plants are required to monitor groundwater under the Obama-era “Coal Ash Rule”. Coal ash, which results from burning coal (or lignite) to produce electricity, is a source of carcinogens, heavy metals and neurotoxins..
The Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research and advocacy group, studied the plants as part of its nation-wide initiative on coal waste. The report includes the now-closed Sandow Steam Electric Station at Rockdale and four other Luminant power plants, as well as the Fayette Power Project in Fayette County, owned by LCRA and Austin Energy.
100% contamination below 16 power plants
Based on the new data, the study concluded 100% of the 16 monitored coal plants are leaking contaminants into groundwater at levels unsafe for human consumption.
Power companies have discarded tons of coal ash into unlined landfills and waste ponds for decades, often near waterways and with no barrier to prevent leaching into groundwater. The report describes the Coal Ash Rule as intended to require monitoring for certain groundwater pollutants and taking action if needed to restore water quality.
Sandow has limited monitoring of property
Luminant closed its power plant at Sandow last year after 60 years of operation, but the entire site has only one recently-built lined landfill regulated under the federal Rule. The 169-acre landfill is ringed by 10 groundwater monitor wells and lies within the now closed Sandow lignite mine owned by Alcoa.
It is unclear whether Luminant will simply “close” ---or whether Alcoa has already closed ---Sandow’s coal disposal sites without any remediation. The report points out even the Obama rule fails to prohibit companies from closing disposal sites without remediation.
The EIP report focused on Luminant’s Sandow Steam Electric Station, and does not deal with Alcoa’s presence at the same Sandow site. Alcoa also generated coal ash for over 50 years at its lignite-fired power plants and aluminum smelter next door to the Luminant plant.
The report indicates there are probably more unlined coal ash pits and lagoons on the property, including the mine property. Stored coal ash at Sandow was estimated by local sources to exceed 300,000 tons in Milam County over a decade ago.
Sandow monitor wells all at unsafe levels
The EIP report found all 10 Sandow monitor wells at the lined landfill showed pollution above federal levels, with unsafe levels of sulfate, cobalt, chromium, selenium, lead, lithium, arsenic, mercury and radium, all of which substances can be detrimental to human health. Neurotoxins like lead and mercury are especially dangerous to children.
The report noted the pattern of contamination indicates the contamination may be coming from other unregulated and unmonitored coal sah disposal areas, the old mine or even the landfill itself. The report notes Luminant does not appear to have initiated any further assessments.
Regulations are still not settled
Congress acted in 2016 to allow states to adopt their own coal waste programs, so long as they are at least as protective as the federal Rule. Environmental Integrity has called for stronger coal ash monitoring and cleanup standards than either the federal Rule or any new state programs. The EIP report notes that the federal Rule is not yet fixed, with the Trump administration intending to weaken its clean-up standards and remediation deadlines.
EIP’s report is highly critical of the draft coal waste program the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality published and then later withdrew, citing a failure to address old waste sites, to restore groundwater and protect aquatic life, and to preserve public protections and rights. TCEQ withdrew its draft, presumably waiting for further federal Rule changes.
“We already know our precious Simsboro water is up for grabs by speculators,” Gangnes said. “Now we have to worry about protecting the quality of this highly coveted water, especially until we see how --- or whether --- our state responds to this latest threat.”
Report raises two side notes of interest
Environmental Integrity’s report raises questions about two related areas of interest. The EIP report does not address whether Luminant’s now-closed Three Oaks lignite mine is a coal ash disposal site. Documents filed by Luminant in 2018 indicate the Texas Railroad Commission may be allowing Luminant to delay reclaiming the open mine pit that straddles Lee and Bastrop counties. Luminant instead is negotiating with LCRA and Brazos River Authority to use the mine pit as a surface water supply source, according to those documents.
The mine pit is ringed by de-pressurization wells used to prevent the artesian Simsboro formation of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer from punching through the mine floor. San Antonio also claims to have residual water rights in the Three Oaks mine block.
Alcoa has been trying to sell its 33,000-acre industrial complex and old mine acreage for nearly three years, for a reported $250 million price tag. The so-called “Sandow Lakes Ranch” is described to include acreage in Milam, Lee and Bastrop counties, along with permitted and not-yet permitted groundwater rights of 58,000 acre-feet/year.
The controversial Vista Ridge water pipeline to San Antonio touches both Three Oaks Mine and Sandow Lakes Ranch.
The Environmental Integrity report can be found at www.simsborowaterdefensefund.org.