Opinion: Railroad Commission should stop expansion of dirty coal operation

Between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, in rural McMullen County, sits a coal ash site that has been called the most contaminated in the entire United States. If you drive out to the San Miguel coal operation, just east of State Hwy. 16, you’ll see gray dusty ground dotted with craters and mountains of ash as tall as city buildings. It looks like the moon or a disaster zone, and it’s right on a tributary to the important Choke Canyon Reservoir.

This operation is owned by the San Miguel Electric Cooperative (SMEC), a company that has had a terrible reputation in our communities for years. After the Peeler family sued SMEC for destroying their ranch to mine lignite, SMEC now wants to expand its mine onto even more ranch land. Though the Texas Railroad Commission has typically approved what SMEC asks for, the people of McMullen and Live Oak counties, including the residents of Three Rivers, have told us loud and clear that this is an unacceptable risk to the water we depend on and the land we call home.

At San Miguel, workers dig lignite out of the earth. They then transport this soft, brown rock – a much more polluting and lower grade material than shiny, black coal – to the onsite power plant, burn it, and carry the leftover ash back to the mine pits where it sits uncovered. This ash is highly toxic and contains mercury, arsenic, cobalt, lithium, and more than 10 other heavy metals that can harm human health, and it’s carried in huge open-air dump trucks to the pits, which are right by San Miguel Creek. Groundwater monitoring wells near San Miguel’s ash sites have shown they are the most polluted in the country.

San Miguel Creek is one of just two tributaries that flow into Choke Canyon Reservoir, which is the only source of drinking water for the town of Three Rivers and our biggest employers, and is a major drinking water source for other small towns downstream and even the city of Corpus Christi. It also provides water for cattle and for locals who like to fish. San Miguel Creek is a crucial waterway for our region, and the mine expansion would put even more ash pits on its banks – and would require the dump trucks to actually cross the creek with loads of ash.

Three Rivers is a working class, rural community that has had to rely on hope that the Railroad Commission will do the right thing. But, just look at how that’s worked out for our neighbors. If the commission’s oversight was enough, why do monitoring wells near the ash on Peeler Ranch Road show that the groundwater is so contaminated? If its inspections were good, why was the Peeler land in such bad shape that it was almost condemned? Just ask anybody around here: If somebody comes into your house and messes it up, you expect them to clean it.

SMEC says it’s operating in line with the law, but the playing field is unevenly stacked against normal people, the people of our communities who matter. The Railroad Commission has favored San Miguel over our valid concerns time after time. Now they have another decision – and a new chance to take us seriously.

Expanding the mine would make sure that SMEC’s risky practices go on for years, when the company should be focused instead on winding down operations and turning to other affordable options for powering the grid. Since SMEC has a mountain of debt, it needs whatever financial resources it can muster to clean up its messes, not to create new ones.

Everybody in Texas knows how important and how scarce clean water is – for drinking, agriculture, and recreation – and how this will only get more scarce in the future. If Choke Canyon gets contaminated, our communities lose their ability to exist. The Railroad Commission needs to take a new course of action and refuse to allow this to happen.

James E. Teal has been the judge of McMullen County since 2011. Felipe Q. Martinez has been the mayor of Three Rivers since 2019.

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Texas Railroad Commission should stop expansion of coal mining