A year-long investigation into Texas coal
Two reporters dive deep into the coal industry's toxic aftermath.
Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.
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The unjust aftermath of coal
Today’s main item is an interview with Naveena Sadasivam, a staff writer for the environmental news site Grist.
For the last year, Sadasivam has been working with Texas Tribune energy and environment reporter Kiah Collier to investigate the coal mining industry in Texas. Together, they sought to find out whether coal companies are adequately cleaning up after themselves when they’re done mining and burning coal on other peoples’ land.
Spoiler alert: They aren’t.
Published last week, Sadasivam and Collier’s three-part investigation reveals how coal companies are using loopholes in state law to leave behind “potentially thousands of acres across Texas contaminated with toxic chemicals, which can leach into the groundwater and soil and endanger people’s health.”
The climate community talks a lot about the importance of a “just transition”—that is, the process of transitioning to a clean energy economy, while ensuring that process doesn’t harm vulnerable communities in the process. More than that, a “just transition” is the process of ensuring the clean energy transition creates shared prosperity—not just for clean energy companies, but for those the fossil fuel industry has harmed.
Sadasivam and Collier’s investigation is about how coal companies in Texas are resisting a just transition by refusing to pay for adequate clean-up of their toxic leftovers—and how governmental officials are allowing that injustice to persist.
My interview with Sadasivam has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HEATED: I need to be fully transparent with you. I have not finished reading your entire investigation yet. I am the worst. (Note: I have now read the pieces, please don’t @ me.)
But I figured, maybe this is a opportunity to just tell me, and thus the newsletter readers, what we’re getting with these pieces.
SADASIVAM: Oh, It's not a problem! It's totally understandable, because we just published this morning, and it's 10,000 words. It's a lot to process.
The broader context for this package is the decline of the coal industry. What we've seen over the last 5 to 10 years is that, as the industry struggles financially, these coal companies are trying to find ways to cut corners, whether that's rolling back pensions and benefits for coal mine workers, or trying to avoid reclamation costs.
So in this case, what we found in Texas is that mining companies are pretty routinely cleaning up old mine sites to lower environmental standards. Federal law requires that, once you're done mining, you have to go back and put the land back to the way it was. If it used to be used for growing crops, or as pasture land, then once you're done mining, you have to restore the land so that you can use it for that exact same purpose again.
Except these mining companies in Texas have found a loophole, a way around that. They have started claiming that some of this land is going to be used for industrial or commercial purposes, which come with lower environmental criteria that they have to meet. And so that then allows them to finish up the cleaning process much quicker. It allows them to get their bond money back from the state much faster. And in the case of one mining company, they are trying to sell that land, so it allows them to put it on the market that much faster.
Who does this affect? Obviously, the effect for mining companies is that it costs less, and is better for business. But what is the affect for everyday Texans that live around these sites?
I would split my response into two buckets. Because in some cases, these mine sites are owned by the coal companies. But in other cases, the mine sites are leased land from property owners.
In the case of the latter, the mining company is supposed to return the land to the landowner. And the landowner might have plans to use that land for grazing cattle, or for any number of purposes. If it’s not restored, that’s affecting their property value. That's affecting whether, and for how much, they can sell that land. So it's affecting the landowners themselves.
More broadly, though, it's affecting a lot of rural communities, because these mine sites are usually in pretty remote parts of Texas. They're often in tiny little mining towns that relied on these sites for jobs, and were hoping this land would be used for some new purpose. So if you've got contaminated land, that affects whether that property is going to get sold; who is going to use it; and whether there will be any new jobs coming into town as a result.
That’s the economic angle. The public health angle is that, if you have contaminated groundwater and the soil is contaminated, and the city wants to build an amphitheater on this contaminated soil, you're you're potentially exposing people to heavy metals and other chemicals that can be dangerous.
Wait… there are cities that want to build amphitheaters on contaminated land?
There’s one, yes—Sulphur Springs, a small town in northeast Texas. The city manager there is really, truly committed to this town. So when this coal mining company decided to gift a 5,000-acre mine to the city, he was ecstatic. He's told us that he's going ahead with his grand vision for that mine site, which is to build an amphitheater and potentially a dog racing track on this giant mound, which we found had a lot of contaminants.
Oh no! You can’t put dogs there!
Yeah, you’ll realize when you read that story that it’s hard to figure out exactly what to make of the city manager—whether he’s being duped by the mining company, or whether he truly believes in this vision for the city.
And I don’t blame him, because it is a small city, and they’re trying their best to bring in tourism revenue and make this city stand out. It’s a beautiful little town. It’s a little like Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls.
Can you tell me a little bit about the story behind the story? Like why you decided to pick this topic, and why with the Texas Tribune?
About two years ago, I had a whistleblower contact me and tell me that there was a story that they felt I needed to look into. Initially, the first six months, it was a lot of conversation—but it just didn't go anywhere.
But then, at the end of last year, the Texas Railroad Commission—which is a state agency that regulates the coal mining industry—fired two of their top officials because they were being too friendly to industry. Now, having reported in Texas for three years, the idea that a state agency in charge of overseeing an industry was being too friendly to industry, that's completely unheard of.
Yeah, that’s like Trump being too friendly to the wall.
Exactly. So that made me sit up and take notice. And Kiah Collier, who is my partner on this project at the Tribune, was also aware that this had happened. So we ended up joining forces.
We felt motivated, we knew it was going to be a big story. And we knew each other. There are very few environmental reporters in Texas, so everyone kind of knows each other.
Why did this story take so long to do? What were the reporting components that made it into a years-long investigation?
Coal mine reclamation is a very complicated topic. It takes a lot of time to understand how that process works.
We also wanted to fully flesh out the Railroad Commission's involvement in helping these these coal companies. There was a backlog or records going back two to three years that we needed to look into. I haven't counted, but I’m pretty sure I sent in two dozen records request to the to the Railroad Commission. Each one resulted in hundreds and hundreds of pages.
We also tried very, very hard to contact as many current and former employees of the agency, so we could have them tell us what was happening. There was no way we could just do it all by ourselves with just the records. So gaining that trust, that also took time. And we succeeded in getting about five people to talk to us. One person is on the record and four of them we decided to grant anonymity.
What are you most proud about accomplishing with this investigation?
I've been feeling very, very grateful to all of the different current and former employees who talked to us. They spoke to us at great risk. A lot of them still have jobs that could be affected if their names were revealed.
So that piece of it—that we were able to handle that sensitively, and build trust with them, and create an environment where they could feel comfortable voicing their concerns—I'm personally very, very proud of that.
You should be. I think people don't always realize that effective journalism often relies on the courage of regular people to sort of put their butts on the line to help people understand what's going on around them.
Exactly. And I truly, really believe that this story would not have happened if it weren't for that courage.
There's no way that a reporter could tell this story with public records requests alone. You need someone on the inside—someone who's worked at the agency before, who is familiar with the way mining companies operate, who can guide you and tell you what you need to be looking for. I just don't see how we could have done these stories without them.
Right, and I feel like that’s something environmental and climate journalists need to work on—being seen as trustworthy enough so that people can come to us and tell us these important stories.
I agree. And in this case, I think that silence worked to the mining company’s benefit. What we heard in our reporting was that this reclamation stuff has been going on for years now. The only difference now is that it’s being discussed openly.
Meme by HEATED editorial memeist, @climemechange.
ICYMI: Exxon has been buying Twitter ads to defend itself from claims in multiple fraud lawsuits. The ads allege a vast conspiracy to specifically destroy ExxonMobil, orchestrated by rich, powerful environmentalists and the Rockefellers.
HOT ACTION: De-coaling your electric bill, continued
Welcome to HOT ACTION, a place where readers can suggest actions individuals can take to help solve the climate crisis. I intentionally don't vet the suggestions very much, because it's a place for conversation among readers. Think of it as a well-monitored comment section. Suggestions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week, a reader suggested using a company called Arcadia Power to try to remove coal-fired power from your electric bill. The company purports to lower people’s electricity bills by connecting them with community solar projects and purchasing renewable energy certificates from wind farms on customers’ behalf.
Many of you emailed me to say you use this service. Reader Shaun Dakin said, “Had for 2 years. Love it. 100 percent clean.. Plus I own part of a solar grid they run and get rebates.” Reader Charles Langford said, “I have had my electricity bill through Arcadia for several months and not had a problem. No changes in charges, and no interruption in service. Half my electricity, effectively, is created by wind energy.”
Other readers noted that the service could be considered “greenwashing,” or overly stating its environmental benefits. From California-based reader Alexandra McGee:
Arcadia sells unbundled renewable energy credits to match with their consumer’s demands. Sorry if this is an oversimplification, but whenever a MW of renewable energy is dispatched onto the grid, a 1MW renewable energy certificate is generated alongside it. Since it’s impossible to “see” an electron and understand if it came from a dirty or clean source, this system creates an accounting mechanism to understand how much green energy there is on the grid at any given time.
Energy can be bought “bundled” or “unbundled.” If you buy bundled, you buy the energy at the same time as the certificate. If you buy unbundled (as Arcadia sells) then you can in essence apply the certificate to the energy you’ve used to call it green. This, as you can imagine, receives a fair amount of ire of the “greenwashing” of less clean energy. However, it does incentivize the production of cleaner energy elsewhere on the grid, even if its not the same electrons powering your microwave.
For more information on Arcadia, Axios’s Amy Harder wrote a column last month about how the service works, and how she’s trying to use it. She said she’ll likely provide an update about her experience using it, and what she learned—and if ya’ll are interested, I’ll share that when it happens.
Thanks for being nice
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Emily Atkin @emorweeAmid the impeachment inquiry, the Trump admin has: 1) launched a campaign offensive around its fossil fuel agenda 2) started formally withdrawing from Paris 3) finalized clean water rule repeal 4) weakened species protections 5) sued Cali over climate https://t.co/Xe8LrfpK6e
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