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Thu Oct 31, 2019, 06:26 AM

32K Acre TX "Remediated" Mine Site Not Moving; Arsenic, Mercury, Cobalt In Groundwater A Tough Sell

It seems like everyone in Rockdale is talking about Sandow Lakes Ranch. That’s because so many residents of this old mining hub in Central Texas believe that the fate of the 32,000-acre tract is crucial to the future of their town. For years, the ranch’s owner has been trying to sell the property, and for years, Rockdale residents have been buzzing about potential buyers, from a longshot bid for Amazon’s HQ2 to news that a Bitcoin-mining company might soon set up shop. Amazon, of course, didn’t pick Rockdale, and the Bitcoin company scaled back its plans.

For more than half a century, Rockdale was largely a company town, and as many as 2,000 people worked on that property, where a sprawling coal mine fed a power plant that in turn powered an energy-hungry aluminum smelter. The mine and smelter were owned by Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, and the generations of Rockdale residents who worked there proudly called themselves Alcoans. At one point, the company accounted for 40% of the county’s tax base and 65% of the local school district’s budget. But in 2008, after 56 years of operating in the town about an hour’s drive northeast of Austin, Alcoa dropped a bombshell: It would shutter the smelter that employed about 10% of the town’s population. Nine years later, cutthroat competition from natural gas and renewables led Luminant, the largest power producer in Texas, to close its coal-fired Sandow Power Plant and lay off another 450 people. By then, Alcoa had closed the coal mine, too, relying on lignite from the nearby Three Oaks mine.


“We release the site knowing it is in great shape for its next chapter in the story of Texas,” said Denny Kingsley, then head of the commission’s Surface Mining and Reclamation Division, in a September 2018 press release that hailed Alcoa’s work. But a review of Railroad Commission records, as well as interviews with former agency employees, indicate the mine site may not be in the immaculate condition that the marketing materials describe. The description glosses over the fact that about 70% of the 32,000 acres were once part of a strip mine, where each year the company removed enough dirt and coal to fill the Panama canal and buried coal ash containing toxic heavy metals under hundreds of acres. The “pristine lakes” on the property are man-made features that once collected acidic mine waste. Any future buyer will also have to plan around a 169-acre landfill that sits in the middle of the property — an area that isn’t part of Sandow Lakes Ranch because it’s owned by Luminant.

The landfill has been primarily used to dispose of coal ash, a heavy-metal-laced byproduct of burning coal at the now-shuttered plant. In the months leading up to the Railroad Commission’s approval of Alcoa’s remediation plan, Luminant tested the groundwater around the landfill. An examination of those results by an environmental group called the Environmental Integrity Project indicated that the heavy metals from the coal ash had made their way into the groundwater. The analysis showed that concentrations of arsenic, mercury, cobalt and lithium were well over the federal limits for human consumption and could present significant risk to public health.



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