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Environmental advocates say Fayette coal plant is 'poisoning' residents, push city to test water

fayetteplant_MM_062922
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Demonstrators with 350 Austin call for the closure of a coal power plant in Fayette County, outside of Austin Energy headquarters on Wednesday.

Danny Fetonte worked at a coal power plant decades ago in Pennsylvania. He was responsible for taking the lids off the ovens so more coal could be dropped in to run the generators.

“Everybody that worked in it was black … because we were totally covered with coal ash,” he told KUT in April.

Fetonte was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer about two months ago. His doctors gave him six months to two years to live. This isn’t his first battle with the disease. Fetonte was also diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer affecting bones and muscle tissue, and had to have his left arm amputated in 2019.

He blames coal ash.

“There's nothing positive about coal ash,” Fetonte said. “And [Fayette’s] just been dumping it into that community for over 40 years.”

Now, Fetonte works with 350 Austin, an environmental advocacy group that is pushing Austin City Council members to take up an agenda item to independently test for toxins caused by coal ash at the partially city-owned Fayette coal power plant. The group has been protesting outside Austin Energy’s headquarters since May.

“Coal ash is an extremely poisonous material,” his wife, Barbara Fetonte, a member of 350 Austin, said at a protest Wednesday. “So what we’re trying to do is to get the City of Austin to take some kind of responsibility for what could be happening in Fayette County.”

Austin pledged in September to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to combat human-induced climate change.

The Fayette coal power plant, located near La Grange, is operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority. Austin Energy owns about a third of the plant. Advocates pushed the city to end its stake in the power plant nearly a decade ago, which the publicly owned utility company agreed to do by 2022.

A man stands near a sign that says "Keep it in the ground" that features a pumpjack inside a dinosaur skeleton
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Demonstrators say coal ash is not properly stored at the Fayette coal power plant, potentially getting into the water and land and making people sick.

But Austin Energy announced in November that it would not end its contract with the LCRA because they couldn't agree on a deal.

Retiring its stake in the plant was seen as a key aspect of Austin Energy's plan to be about 90% carbon-free by 2030. This plan in turn was an important aspect of the city meeting a goal of Austin reaching net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2040. Fayette is responsible for 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions and 28% of the city’s, according to Austin's joint sustainability committee.

“It is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions for our city by far, and it's also a major source of other air pollutants that are harmful to public health and the environment,” said Kaiba White, an energy policy and outreach specialist with Public Citizen in Austin. “It's well past time that that facility be shut down.”

White said Public Citizen worked nearly a decade ago to get Austin to retire its stake in the coal plant, but those efforts slowed when they were led to believe Austin Energy was going to get out. Now White said local environmental advocacy groups are coming together to figure out how they can address this issue.

She said one of the methods they’re pursuing is for City Council to have oversight of Austin Energy’s budget with LCRA. White said currently that budget is controlled by the utility company and LCRA, meaning Austin Energy doesn’t have to ask City Council members for permission on how much it spends at the coal plant.

“It seems prudent for the city council to get much more involved in looking at what money is being spent, and for what reasons and perhaps to start shutting down that flow of money into the plant,” White said. “Because why would you continue putting money into an asset that you're trying to shut down?”

The Environmental Integrity Project released a report in 2019 that found the “groundwater at Fayette is unsafe” due to toxins leaching from coal ash pits.

Abel Russ, a senior attorney with EIP who specializes in coal ash laws, said these results came from monitoring done at the power plant of the groundwater near the pits where the coal ash is dumped. Coal ash is disposed of in two ways, in a landfill or a coal ash pond. Fayette uses both, Russ said.

Groundwater issues are not limited to Fayette, Russ said, as they are happening at most coal plants in Texas. But he said the LCRA is not trying to fix the issue and is instead going out of its way to cover it up by changing how it analyzes the data.

By continually changing how it analyzes the data, Fayette does not enter the phase where it would correct the unsafe groundwater, Russ said.

“[Fayette’s] not doing anything about it as far as I know,” Russ said. “And they're also not even collecting all the data they should be collecting. So we don't really know the full extent of the problem because the data collection has been so spotty.”

In an emailed statement in May, a spokesperson from LCRA said Fayette “meets all applicable environmental state and federal rules and regulations.” The plant did not answer specific questions about why the analysis methods changed but said LCRA posts an annual groundwater report online and submits it to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

When asked to comment for this story, Austin Energy sent a prepared statement regarding the city’s inability to get out of its contract with LCRA. It also said it's trying to implement its REACH (Reduce Emissions Affordably for Climate Health) initiative, where it sometimes runs the Fayette plant at a lower level to cut down on emissions.

While the full extent of what chemicals could be in the groundwater and land is unknown, Russ said EIP found arsenic, cobalt and other heavy metals at Fayette. Coal ash is also known to produce mercury and lead, but it's unclear to what extent, if any, those two elements are in the groundwater.

That’s what Fetonte wants to find out through testing. 350 Austin has already found someone to do it: Zacariah Hildenbrand, a chemistry and biochemistry research professor at UT El Paso. The group estimates it will cost about $70,000. Fetonte said Council Member Chito Vela is supportive of the initiative. His spokesperson confirmed Vela's support, but said they’re not sure when the item will be brought to council.

Testing isn’t all 350 Austin wants. Depending on what the testing brings back, the group wants the coal ash cleaned up and the power plant converted into a solar energy farm.

“[For] Austin to go and pass a resolution that the environmental crisis is real and eminent,” Fetonte said, “and then ignore the fact that [Fayette’s] one of the largest producers of carbon … [means] they're poisoning the people in a community that don't even realize it.”

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