Environmental activists say Fayette coal plant is ‘poisoning’ residents and pushing town to test the water
Friday, July 1, 2022 by Skye Seipp, KUT
Danny Fetonte worked at a coal plant decades ago in Pennsylvania. He was responsible for removing the lids from the furnaces so that more coal could be added to run the generators.
“Everyone who worked there was black…because we were totally covered in 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 is not his first battle with the disease. Fetonte was also diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer affecting bone and muscle tissue, and had to have his left arm amputated in 2019.
He accuses the ashes of coal.
“There’s nothing positive about coal ash,” Fetonte said. “And (Fayette) just threw him into this community for over 40 years.”
Today, Fetonte works with 350 Austin, an environmental advocacy group that pushes Austin City Council members to put an agenda item on the agenda to independently test the toxins caused by coal ash in the partially city-owned Fayette coal-fired power plant. The group has been protesting outside Austin Energy headquarters since May.
“Coal ash is an extremely toxic material,” his wife, 350 Austin member Barbara Fetonte, said at a protest Wednesday. “So what we’re trying to do is get the city of Austin to take some sort of responsibility for what might happen in Fayette County.”
Austin pledged in September to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to combat human-induced climate change.
The Fayette coal plant, located near La Grange, is operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority. Austin Energy owns about a third of the plant. Supporters pushed the city to end its stake in the plant nearly a decade ago, which the utility company agreed to do by 2022.
But Austin Energy announcement in November that he would not terminate his contract with LCRA because they could not agree on a deal.
Removing its stake in the plant was seen as a key aspect of Austin Energy’s plan to be approximately 90% carbon-free by 2030. This plan was in turn an important aspect of the city achieving its goal of net zero greenhouse gas 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’s by far the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions for our city, and it’s also a major source of other air pollutants that are harmful to public health and the environment,” he said. said Kaiba White, energy policy and outreach specialist at Public Citizen. in Austin. “It is high time this facility was shut down.”
White said Public Citizen worked nearly a decade ago to get Austin to withdraw its stake in the coal-fired plant, but those efforts slowed when they were led to believe Austin Energy was coming out. Now, White said local conservation groups are meeting to figure out how they can solve this problem.
One method they are pursuing is for the city council to oversee Austin Energy’s budget with the LCRA. White said the budget is currently controlled by the utility company and the LCRA, which means Austin Energy does not have to ask council members for permission to know how much it is spending 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, and maybe start stopping that flow of money to the plant,” White said. . “Because why would you keep putting money into an asset you’re trying to close?”
The Environmental Integrity Project released a report in 2019 which found that “Fayette’s groundwater is unsafe” due to leaching of toxins from coal ash pits.
Abel Russ, a senior EIP attorney specializing in coal ash laws, said the findings came from monitoring carried out at the groundwater power plant near the pits where coal ash is dumped. Coal ash is disposed of in two ways, in a landfill or a coal ash pond. Fayette uses both.
Groundwater issues aren’t limited to Fayette, Russ said, because they occur at most coal-fired power plants in Texas. But he said the LCRA was not trying to fix the problem and was instead doing everything possible to cover it up by changing the way it analyzes the data. That way, Russ said, Fayette doesn’t enter the phase where she would correct dangerous groundwater.
“(Fayette) isn’t doing anything about it as far as I know,” he said. “And they’re not even collecting all the data they should be collecting. So we don’t really know the full extent of the problem because data collection has been so patchy.
In an emailed statement in May, an LCRA spokesperson said Fayette “is in compliance with all applicable environmental and federal rules and regulations.” The plant did not respond to specific questions about why testing methods changed, but said the LCRA publishes an annual groundwater report online and submits it to the Texas Commission on the quality of the environment.
When asked to comment for this story, Austin Energy sent a prepared statement about the city’s inability to exit its contract with LCRA. The utility also said it was trying to implement its Reduce Emissions Affordably for Climate Health (REACH) initiative, in which it sometimes manages the Fayette plant at a lower level. to reduce emissions.
Although the full extent of chemicals that could be in groundwater and soil is unknown, Russ said the EIP found arsenic, cobalt and other heavy metals at Fayette. Coal ash is also known to produce mercury and lead, but it is unknown to what extent, if any, these two elements are found in groundwater.
That’s what Fetonte wants to find out through testing. 350 Austin has already found someone to do it: Zacariah Hildenbrand, research professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UT El Paso. The band estimates it will cost around $70,000. Fetonte said council member Chito Vela supports the initiative. Vela’s spokesperson confirmed their support, but said they did not know when the item would be presented to the Board.
Testing isn’t all 350 Austin wants. Depending on what the tests report, the group wants the coal ashes to be cleaned up and the power station converted into a solar power farm.
“(For) Austin needs to go and pass a resolution that the environmental crisis is real and imminent,” Fetonte said, “and then ignore the fact that (Fayette) is one of the biggest carbon producers… (means ) that they poison the people of a community who don’t even realize it.
This story was produced as part of the austin monitorreporting partnership with KUT.
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