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Coal ash heaps. Toxic groundwater plumes. Waste pits and burning flares. San Antonio’s air, land, and waters are marred by permitted pollution—typically self-reported, under-regulated, and (suprise, surprise) under-counted. There are also a number of abandoned contaminated sites, some partially remediated, some still seeping. As Deceleration‘s Top Climate Polluters page ranks our largest greenhouse gas emitters, contributing to the destabilizing of our global climate, here with San Antonio’s Top Polluters we seek to document the facilities fouling our land and water. Towering above San Antonio’s considerable toxic heap is the continuing legacy of the Kelly Air Force Base contamination and the coal incinerator known as the JK Spruce Coal Plant.
[Related: San Antonio’s Top 15 Climate Polluters]
Military City, USA
Over its more than 80 years as a military base, the now former Kelly Air Force Base saw generations of leadership pack its lands to the seams with highly toxic and corrosive chemicals. Over a 30-year investigation and cleanup process, 730 polluted sites were identified by the Air Force. Most critically, a resulting massive groundwater plume had spread beneath the surrounding community awash in toxic chemicals like trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and cancer-causing benzene.
An estimated tens of thousands of nearby homes in the working-class, heavily Chicanx/Mexicanx neighborhoods around the base sat above the plume for years, drawing on their well water for gardens and fruit trees, washing their cars, and—as San Antonio hydrologist George Rice reported years back—“the children used the hoses the way children use hoses,” to play in the water. The Air Force has done everything short of waving a “Mission Accomplished” banner since a cleanup that has included capping around 70 neighborhood water wells all the while denying any links to elevated cancer cases in the community. Although it was ordered closed in 1995, the Air Force continues pumping and cleanup operations at several sites around the base.
[RELATED: Online Pollution Complaint Form]
With consolidation of military activity at other local bases, Kelly AFB is no longer. In its place is a growing economic hub known as Port San Antonio, serving as a gateway (among other things) for fracking sand trucked and trained into the Eagle Ford shale territory to the east and south of San Antonio. Resistance to continued extractive use of the site by members of the surrounding communities has continued. (“Hey hey, ho ho. The fracking sands have got to go!” was the chant outside the facility’s gates in 2013, a dozen years after Kelly’s closure.) That Kelly figures prominently in San Antonio’s toxic story (or that three other military bases hang in our top polluters list) shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, three out of every four EPA Superfund sites are former military sites. And decades ago, Indian environmental ethicist Ramachandra Guha famously identified militarization as one of the two “fundamental problems facing the globe,” a fact underappreciated in conservation-based enviromentalisms by but keenly felt in the Global South. How Kelly stayed off the Superfund list remains a mystery.
This 2012 map shows the Air Force’s mapping of the groundwater contamination 30 feet below surface. Image: USAF Civil Engineer Center
Coal power has a dirty legacy anywhere it’s been burned in terms of fouled air and resulting public health crises, including elevated childhood asthma, heart attacks, and premature death. But less well understood in San Antonio has been the contribution by former JT “Dirty” Deely and current JK Spruce coal plants to contamination of groundwater across the Calaveras Lake area with a toxic and radioactive slurry. A recent investigation found that for decades the City-owned CPS Energy has followed the playbook of coal utilities around the US and world and disposed of the toxic remainders of coal incineration “in the most convenient, and affordable, way possible: by dumping it into nearby pits or lagoons.”
As coal plants use huge amounts of water, the units were sited at Calaveras Lake, itself fed by the San Antonio River and augmented by wastewater from the power plants and a San Antonio Water System treatment plant. Relying on disposal pits so close to water “makes it more likely that hazardous elements in coal ash, including heavy metals like arsenic and chromium (both carcinogens), as well as neurotoxins like lead and mercury, will leach into groundwater, poisoning drinking water aquifers and harming aquatic life in nearby surface waters.” — “Groundwater Contamination from Texas Coal Ash Dumps,” Environmental Integrity Project (2019)
And that’s precisely what has happened here. The pits used at the Calaveras Generating Station are all unlined, including the sludge recycling holding ponds, bottom ash ponds, fly ash landfill, and an evaporation pond, according to the report. Among the toxic materials dumped in these ponds are cobalt, lead, radium, and mercury. CPS insists exceedances of many of these pollutants in the groundwater are “naturally occurring” and unrelated to the burning of hundreds of tons of coal per hour at the plant.
For more on the health threats posed by coal ash, see the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Pollution, With Papers
As with Spruce, there are dozens of other companies and facilities around San Antonio legally allowed to release large amounts of toxic substances on an ongoing basis. Heaps of lead are scattered across the military training grounds of Camp Bullis and Lackland Air Force Base, for example. Toyota’s manufacturing plant on the Southside releases tens of thousands of pounds of benzene compounds each year. The cement plants, also major climate villains, spew neurotoxins like lead and mercury. The amounts listed below represent the thousands of pounds of toxics that are legally landfilled, poured into creeks and pits, or flared into the air. On the following Google Map, we have also sought to reflect the large amount of toxic chemicals that are shipped out of San Antonio for disposal or recycling elsewhere.
Here are the other 14 top toxic polluters for the city:
- Toyota Motor Manufacturing
- USAF Camp Bullis
- VP Racing Fuels
- Capitol Aggregates
- The San Antonio Refinery
- Alamo Marble
- Flexcon Industrial
- Camp Stanley
- Lubrizol Corp
- TowerJazz Texas
- USAF Lackland AFB
- Standard Aero
- San Antonio Retail Support
- Rittiman Road Retail Support
- Azz Galvanizing
- Blue Line Group
- Carbonfree Chemicals
- Alamo Cement
Unaccounted for are all the already fouled lands and waters left abandoned with questions about justice and future cleanup often hanging in legal limbo. We have included among the roughly 30 active polluting sites mapped below a handful of those partially cleaned sites being monitored as well as those awaiting determination, with their toxic masses, in at least one case, still drifting in underground plumes. In spite of a lax regulatory environment, even the most twisted capitalistic impulses to profit off of poison sometimes gets checked by the regulators.
While the bulk of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s investigations into toxic emissions have centered on the production and refining of oil and gas (even during the COVID-19 oil slump), Bexar is well represented, getting outsized attention in the category of “aggregate production”–inspiring more compliance investigations (51) than an of the TCEQ’s 16 regions, according to the agency’s Annual Enforcement Report (FY 2020). Now, it is criminally difficult to muster a major fine from the TCEQ (which also tends to do a lot of fine-forgiveness after the fact), but a couple cases caught our attention for anecdotal power and were therefore added to our polluter’s map, even if the event (or entity) proved to be a short-lived one.
Find details for all facilities on the Google Map below.
Click the slider icon at the very top left corner of the map for a quick overview of facilities.