Texas Power Company Has Known of Contamination in Groundwater Under its Plant Since 2014

Luminant Asking State for Permit to Move Monitoring Wells at its Big Brown Power Plant Southeast of Dallas

AUSTIN, TX. — Documents recently obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Sierra Club show that levels of two toxic heavy metals – arsenic and selenium – in the groundwater at the Big Brown power plant in Freestone County exceed legal limits.

The 47-year-old coal-fired power plant is owned by Dallas-based Luminant, formerly known as TXU.  Vistra Energy – the parent company of Luminant that emerged this year from the $42 billion bankruptcy of Energy Future Holdings – recently stated that it intends to retire and decommission the Big Brown coal plant ahead of a deal to acquire rival power company Dynegy.

According to documents recently obtained from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), in January 2014 Luminant sampled groundwater at a monitoring well from which it had not tested water for several years.  The January 2014 test revealed levels of the heavy metal selenium to be more than double the legal limit.  The well is part of the coal plant’s groundwater monitoring system designed to detect pollution plumes released from two waste ponds at the site that are used to store industrial wastes known to be high in toxic metals.

Subsequent testing showed elevated levels of the heavy metals cadmium and arsenic as well.  The subsequent testing, ordered by the TCEQ, confirmed that the groundwater contamination is likely a result of a release from the company’s onsite coal waste ponds.

As a result of the toxic release to groundwater at the plant, Luminant is asking TCEQ to approve a “plume management” plan and other modifications to the company’s hazardous waste permit that would require some groundwater monitoring.  Luminant has no plan to remove the contamination or to remove the source of the contamination, which is the coal ash waste that has been stored on the property in unlined landfills. TCEQ held a public meeting in Fairfield, Texas, on Wednesday, December 13, 2017, on the proposed permit amendment.  TCEQ’s comment period on this issue closes on December 29, 2017.

The contamination in groundwater at the Big Brown plant is likely associated with the coal ash and coal waste stored onsite. Coal waste is known to leak contaminants like mercury, cadmium, selenium, and arsenic into groundwater. Regulators have long known that without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water, and the air, but Luminant has a nearly 50-year history of putting coal ash and coal waste into pits across east Texas without liners and adequate monitoring systems.

Dr. Neil Carman, clean air program director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, responded by explaining:

“Arsenic and selenium are recognized by EPA as harmful even in minute concentrations, in parts per billion, such that they are hazardous to human health, water quality, and wildlife. Arsenic is one of the most toxic substances known with health effects including recognition as a Class A human carcinogen, is a suspected mutagen (causing DNA damage); is suspected of causing birth defects; can cause deleterious reproductive effects; and can cause acute poisoning leading to heart problems, nervous system impairment, memory loss, gastrointestinal problems, and headaches. In addition, it’s an extremely persistent substance that can impact groundwater for decades because it does not decompose.

Selenium is another highly toxic metal.  Selenium shows neurotoxic effects and is particularly toxic to freshwater fish, as it can bioaccumulate up to 5,000 times as concentrated in their bodies as in the surrounding water.  This can result in anemia; heart, liver, and breathing problems; and deformities.”

TCEQ is in the process of deciding whether to approve the company’s monitoring and “plume management” plan. Documents obtained by EIP and Sierra Club show that TCEQ has been communicating with Luminant about the arsenic and selenium found in the groundwater and has been proceeding to evaluate the problem over this past year.

Ilan Levin, Associate Director of EIP, also responded:

“Arsenic leaking from this coal plant’s waste pond is a serious matter, and it is even more concerning at a coal waste site where the owner is trying to shut down the plant and divest itself of the same contaminated property. With President Trump and Administrator Pruitt dismantling the EPA, it’s up to TCEQ to really step up to make sure that Luminant does not walk away from Big Brown and leave Texans with years of cleanup and unknown financial risk from contaminated groundwater.”

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 15-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.

Media Contact: Ilan Levin, Environmental Integrity Project, (512) 637-9479 or ilevin@environmentalintegrity.org