Thousands of acres of former coal mining land in Texas could be contaminated because of the state's lax enforcement of industry requirements.
Texas is the seventh largest producer of coal and the nation's leading producer of lignite coal, which is designated by its lower heat value and is primarily used to power coal-fired plants.
The Railroad Commission oversees Texas’ coal mines and is tasked with enforcing industry standards including returning mined lands to their former state through a process called "reclamation."
A year-long investigation by Grist and The Texas Tribune found that a lack of oversight in the Commission’s reclamation process led to the potential contamination of thousands of acres of soil and groundwater with mining waste, including coal ash that can be toxic to humans and animals in large quantities.
Coal companies are required to restore the land when they're done using it and have to set aside the money to do so before mining can begin. Typically, this money comes from a state-held bond which can be recouped if all reclamation conditions are met.
Pits must be refilled with soil in the same order it was removed -- a complicated, critical process -- then the appropriate grasses or vegetation must be planted to cover the ground. Streams and groundwater are then tested for contaminants by the state. If all requirements are met, bond money can be released back to the company.
However, Tribune/Grist reporting found that the state has increasingly allowed companies to do the bare minimum restoration, granting permission for companies to adhere to lower standards without justification. Companies can save millions of dollars by shirking reclamation responsibilities.
Separately, a report released earlier this year revealed how for decades power companies have discarded coal ash -- a toxic substance left behind after the fuel is burned -- by dumping it into nearby pits or lagoons, which are often located near waterways, increasing the likelihood of heavy metals and neurotoxins leaching into underground water supplies. But it's the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that has jurisdiction over coal ash, not the Railroad Commission, further confusing the distinction between regulatory responsibilities.
Why are state officials more often letting companies circumvent the appropriate level of cleanup and monitoring? Is Texas in compliance with federal rules for coal? What needs to happen to make sure companies do their due diligence?
What are the potential health and environmental effects of improperly disposed of coal ash? Which areas in Texas are most likely to be affected? What's being done to identify and deal with contaminated land and water?
- Naveena Sadasivam, staff writer covering the environment, energy and climate change at Grist
- Abel Russ, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project and lead writer and researcher for a 2019 report on “Groundwater Contamination from Texas Coal Ash Dumps”
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*This interview was recorded on Monday, November 11.