Xcel Energy will pay $925,000 to settle EPA claims it improperly disposed coal waste

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Coal transported from a BNSF freight train piles up at the Comanche 3 Power Generating Station operated by Xcel Energy, southeast of Pueblo on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Xcel Energy agreed to pay a $925,000 penalty to resolve allegations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that its Pueblo power plant contaminated groundwater, the federal agency said Monday.

EPA officials accused the utility of violating federal coal ash disposal rules at the Comanche Generating Station in Pueblo. Those rules included monitoring groundwater and analyzing groundwater data, closing a storage pond and making related documents available online.

Last week, a judicial officer approved the settlement with Xcel, Colorado’s largest public utility with 3 million total customers. Under the agreement, the utility will submit a plan on how to fix any potential groundwater contamination.

“EPA is committed to enforcing the law against facilities that mismanage coal ash,” said Larry Starfield, its acting assistant administrator for enforcement, in a statement. “In particular, we are committed to holding coal ash facilities accountable for operating and closing their facilities in a manner that protects public health and the environment.”

In a statement, Xcel Energy spokesperson Michelle Aguayo said the company believed it was following coal ash rules “based on [its] understanding of the local groundwater conditions.” She said the company had “no indication of impacts” to local drinking or surface water based on those current conditions.

Xcel’s power plants released about 1 million tons of coal ash from burning coal in 2020, according to its website, which refers to the residue as “a nonhazardous waste.” The ash from Comanche is stored in a pond and landfill located onsite.

The EPA, however, said coal ash can contain harmful levels of mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other chemicals that can pollute water and the air. The agency’s website cites recent ash spills at a power plant in North Carolina and another in Tennessee, where dozens of workers involved in cleanup efforts later died from related illnesses

In addition to paying the penalty within 30 days, Xcel also agreed to build a groundwater monitoring system that meets coal ash regulations and work on plans to close the coal ash storage pond and landfill, according to the EPA. The penalty would not be charged to Xcel’s customers, Aguayo said.

The EPA did not immediately provide specific allegations about the Comanche coal ash disposal when contacted by CPR News.

The Comanche plant has been accused of violating federal clean water rules multiple times since 2019, including for failing to report necessary discharge levels, according to data from the EPA. The agency’s report does not list any related penalties.

Xcel has agreed to close the Comanche Generating Station by 2031, nearly four decades earlier than the full life of the plant. State regulators have yet to approve the closure.