In 1954, the Peeler family signed an agreement to lease 6,000 acres of their 25,000-acre Texas ranch for a lignite coal mine. A few years later, they sold an additional 300 or so acres of their property to a small electric cooperative, which had taken over the mine, for the construction of a new coal-fired power plant. The family thought the arrangement would provide them with a modest income from the leases and felt they were playing a part in the electrification of rural Texas, which was then still underway.
The hulking coal plant, owned by the San Miguel Electric Cooperative, was eventually built and came online in 1982. Situated among the rolling hills, grazing cattle, and nodding oil pumps in Christine, Texas, 60 miles south of San Antonio, the 400-megawatt power plant, together with eight other rural co-ops, helps provides electricity to more than 200,000 customers in 42 rural counties across South Texas.
For years, the Peelers and the San Miguel cooperative coexisted peacefully, side-by-side. But no longer. The family and the co-op are now engaged in a bitter legal battle over the dumping of large amounts of coal ash — the toxic byproduct of burning coal — into empty mining pits and in ponds around the San Miguel plant. The soil near the various storage sites is now ashen, with silvery slicks of groundwater pooling on the surface. According to San Miguel’s own testing, pollutants from coal ash have leached into the groundwater around the power plant, with concentrations of cadmium, lithium, arsenic, and other contaminants at levels far exceeding those set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“It looks like a moonscape to me. [The coal ash] kills the vegetation, changes it, kills the grass, and blights the trees.”
“It looks like a moonscape to me,” says Alonzo Peeler Jr., 79, whose grandfather signed the original agreement with what would later become the San Miguel co-op. The coal ash, says Peeler — a tall man with a high-pitched voice and a face that has been carved by a life spent working in the sun — “kills the vegetation, changes it, kills the grass, and blights the trees.” The Peelers say that the coal ash pollution has left portions of their ranch unsuitable for cattle grazing because the grass is unsafe to eat and the water unfit to drink. The mounds of toxic ash around the old mine are an unearthly contrast to uncontaminated sections of Peeler land, an otherwise gentle, dry landscape, where spring wildflowers create a mottled quilt of pinks, blues, and yellows.
Now the Peelers, a fifth-generation ranching family that has long been skeptical of the federal government’s reach, are looking to the EPA for help. For Alonzo Jr.’s son, Jason Peeler, who runs the family ranch, this struggle has changed his outlook on the role of government and the value of environmental regulation. “We [Texans] pride ourselves on being independent, even of our own government,” said the younger Peeler, 51. “Sitting at the ranch looking out the window at the plant, it’s hard for me believe that this [level of contamination] can happen.”
The family may not find a sympathetic ear in Washington. Despite several instances in recent years of major spills at coal ash ponds, resulting in contamination of rivers and groundwater supplies, the Trump administration has been working to reverse or relax the single federal regulation governing disposal of coal ash. In one of his first moves after taking charge of the EPA in July 2018, Trump appointee Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, sought to reverse that 2015 rule. It is one of numerous actions taken by the Trump administration that are favorable to the coal industry and electric utilities.
The Peeler family saga is atypical of most coal ash pollution stories, since most plants or storage sites aren’t on someone else’s property. But the family’s struggle nevertheless highlights a growing problem with this waste product. Coal ash — which contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and other dangerous substances — is a particularly pernicious legacy of America’s reliance on coal. It is one of the country’s largest waste streams, with more than 100 million tons produced across the United States every year. The hazardous dust and sludge are stored in more than 1,000 bodies of water and landfills in nearly every state, posing potential risks to air, soil, water, and human health.
About a third of coal ash ponds are within 5 miles of a public drinking water intake or reservoir, and about 80 percent are within 5 miles of a drinking water well, according to the EPA. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has also found that minority and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by coal ash pollution. Health experts say that long-term exposure to cadmium in drinking water, a coal ash pollutant, can cause kidney, lung, and blood ailments, including an increased risk of cancer.
According to a report from two non-profit groups, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, the groundwater near 16 of Texas’ coal-fired power plants is contaminated with levels of arsenic, boron, cobalt, and lithium that exceed EPA standards and make it unsafe for human consumption. The report concluded that the toxins originated in the facilities’ coal ash storage sites. The environmental groups also found that 91 percent of coal plants nationwide have one or more coal ash pollutants in groundwater beneath their storage ponds at levels exceeding safe standards.
Coal ash has only been federally regulated since 2015, and the regulation does not apply to coal ash dumped in old mines.
Coal ash has been responsible for two major environmental disasters in the last 11 years. In December 2008, a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee broke, unleashing more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry into the Emory River, covering 300 acres in toxic sludge, and blanketing miles of the river bottom downstream with heavy metal pollutants. In 2014, a pipe in a coal ash pond at a decommissioned Duke Energy plant in North Carolina ruptured, flooding the Dan River with 39,000 tons of coal ash and up to 35 million gallons of wastewater for six days before the leak was stopped, at which point the pollutants had already traveled 70 miles downstream. In 2015, Duke Energy’s subsidiaries pleaded guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations across the state.
Numerous citizens and environmental groups have filed suits in these and other cases in recent years. Dozens of workers brought in to clean up the Kingston spill, and who were sickened in the process, won a case in November against the government contractor who hired them. And six environmental groups, including Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club, have filed a petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals, challenging the EPA’s attempts to weaken federal coal ash regulation. Among their chief concerns are that the agency’s changes give companies additional time to clean up leaking coal ash sites and turns over enforcement power to states, which would allow some groundwater monitoring requirements to be waived.
Coal ash has only been federally regulated since 2015, following the Kingston disaster. And the regulation does not apply to coal ash dumped in old mines. The practice of storing the ash in former mine sites has increased more than 25 percent over the last decade, according to the American Coal Ash Association.
“We’ve identified a threat to groundwater across the U.S. from the mismanagement of coal ash at almost every plant in the country,” said Lisa Evans, who specializes in coal ash litigation for Earthjustice. “The lack of government attention to that finding is very disturbing, as is the burden on communities to police their own utility to do the right thing.”
When the San Miguel coal-fired power plant opened in 1982, the Peeler family figured it would operate for about 30 years and then age into obsolescence, as most power plants were expected to do at that time, according to Mary Whittle, the Peeler’s lawyer. Then the plant and the mine would close, and San Miguel would clean up the land and move on, they believed. But that did not happen, and as the coal plant continued to operate in recent years, problems related to coal ash storage and disposal became even more evident.
Coal ash is stored in dark ponds next to the plant, until it is dredged from the water and trucked over to the old mine, which closed in 2004. The ash is then dumped into pits, which also collect water, allowing the contaminants to leak into the groundwater and migrate around the property, according to Whittle. The ash also gets piled up into mounds that reach about 300 feet in some places, she said. Once dried, the ash is free to escape on the wind, carrying the pollutants across the land.
A recent national report shows that the groundwater under the San Miguel plant is among the most polluted in the country.
A recent national report from Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice shows that the groundwater under the San Miguel plant is among the most polluted in the country. Arsenic, a carcinogen, has been measured at levels up to 12 times what the EPA deems safe. Cadmium, is 130 times the recommended levels. In a statement, San Miguel maintained that pollution at the coal plant is coming from other sources, not their ponds.
San Miguel declined to comment on questions submitted by Yale Environment 360.
The Peelers’ drinking water has not been affected because they pull from groundwater sources that are not hydrologically connected to the coal ash sites. But San Miguel’s coal ash remediation plan proposes diluting the polluted water at the storage sites with massive amounts of clean groundwater, and then discharging the mixture over the Peelers’ land, where, Whittle says, it would then meet aquifer systems that provide drinking water to communities downstream — including Corpus Christi and Nueces County.
When there are unauthorized spills of storm water or mine pit water, San Miguel is required to notify the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality because of the possible risks to the those downstream drinking water supplies, according to a spokesman from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Unauthorized wastewater discharges or chemical releases at San Miguel have happened nine times over the past five years.
Last August, the Peelers notified the San Miguel co-op that they needed to leave the mine area, contending that the lease was over and that it never gave them the right to use the mine as a waste dump in the first place. “Looking at their mess, and what they’ve done… it became apparent that they weren’t going to clean this thing up,” said Jason Peeler.
San Miguel sued the Peelers, who then countersued San Miguel and filed notices with the EPA that the company was in violation of the federal coal ash rule. San Miguel responded by attempting to have more than 7,000 acres of the ranch condemned for pollution remediation, which would also allow them to seize the land and the minerals below by eminent domain. The Peelers plan to file a federal lawsuit, arguing that the plant is violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
What’s happening at the Peeler ranch, environmental groups say, is emblematic of a larger problem: mismanagement of coal ash, the lack of government attention, and the difficulties communities face in holding utilities accountable.
Jason Peeler never saw himself as an environmental champion, but he says the situation on his ranch has left him no choice.
“I never dreamed we’d be fighting rural Texans or asking the EPA to come help us,” he said. “But something has got to be done.”