Congress Spotlights Texas' Coal Waste

Feds hear testimony on Central Texas polluters

The National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council, an advisory panel of prominent academics and scholars, met in Austin Thursday and Friday of last week at the request of Congress to hear testimony regarding the disposal of coal combustion waste. Texas burns more coal and creates more CCW than any other state. Specifically, the council examined the health, safety, and environmental impacts of dumping CCW in mine pits, a practice that has caused groundwater contamination elsewhere in the U.S. and is gaining popularity in Texas. Community and environmental activists cited a lack of adequate regulation on the part of the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agencies that currently oversee CCW handling, as well as their cozy relationships with CCW producers.

At the heart of the debate in Texas is the classification of the CCW as either sensitive waste or beneficial material – it is currently designated as the latter. Alcoa's Sandow mine in Rockdale, among the largest and most controversial strip mines in the nation, is already engaging in some CCW disposal and is seeking permission to begin large-scale dumping of CCW into one of its old mines, amid local protest. Escalating the conflict is the fact that Sandow sits atop the Simsboro aquifer, one of the more prolific water sources in the state, supplying numerous surrounding communities like Elgin with drinking water.

Neighbors for Neighbors, the Lee County-based community organization opposing Alcoa (Rockdale is in neighboring Milam Co.), led a coalition of advocacy groups in asking the Council to recommend a strict framework of EPA regulation to monitor and control the handling of CCW, requesting disposal standards at least as strong as those in place for garbage. Lauren Ross, a consultant engineer for NFN, said, "State agencies are not doing their job; they have failed to protect people by allowing industry to recategorize waste as 'beneficial use.'" In an independent study, NFN found elevated levels of toxic thallium and dioxins in samplings of CCW and groundwater near Alcoa's facility.

In his statement to the council, Public Citizen's Travis Brown identified "glaring examples of how the RRC and TCEQ act in ways that pad the profits of the industries that they are supposed to regulate." He described recommendations proposed in spring 2004 by the RRC to the Office of Surface Mining to change Texas' mining rules. "These changes would have given generators of CCW such as Alcoa and TXU even more leeway to dump unlimited amounts of their waste in Texas without regard to its impact on water resources or human health and without having to comply with appropriate environmental controls." The proposed rule changes were rejected, but Brown expects the RRC to press for similar changes later this month.

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