Power plant owned by San Antonio utility CPS Energy one of nation's biggest toxic polluters, study says

CPS discharged 72,494 pounds of toxic chemicals, including chromium compounds, into Calaveras Lake and stormwater in 2020, according to data it filed with federal regulators.

click to enlarge Environmental advocates speak at a press conference with CPS's Calaveras Power Station in the background. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Environmental advocates speak at a press conference with CPS's Calaveras Power Station in the background.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include additional comments from CPS officials.

CPS Energy’s Calaveras Power Station ranks 10th in the nation for the toxicity of the material it releases into waterways including nearby Calaveras Lake, according to a new study based on federal data.

The report by comes as CPS Energy faces increasing pressure to close down J.K. Spruce, its coal-burning power plant at Calaveras. Spruce is the city-owned utility's dirtiest power-generating facility and one of the region's largest sources of air pollution.

"There are many reasons why we need to close the Spruce coal-fired power plant," said Luke Metzger, executive director of the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center, one of the groups behind the report. "We hear about its significant contribution to the climate crisis, we hear about its significant impact on global air quality, we hear about the leaking coal ash ponds — and today is just the latest evidence of direct discharges of toxic chemicals into a water body used by thousands of people. It's alarming."

CPS Energy officials had no immediate comment on the report. However, the utility has said it plans to close the coal plant's older Spruce 1 unit by 2028 and that it's considering transitioning the newer Spruce 2 unit to cleaner-burning natural gas.

Calaveras Lake is a popular fishing and recreational spot. As Metzger and other environmental activists held a press conference Wednesday to discuss the study, people fished from the shore several yards away and a boat cut through the water in front of CPS's power plant.

Environment Texas' report is based on 2020 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Industrial facilities self-report to the regulatory agency how much toxic material they release into surface waters. CPS told the EPA it discharged 72,494 pounds of toxic chemicals, including chromium compounds, into Calaveras Lake and stormwater that year.

Calaveras Power Station's discharge level was 1,000 times higher than that of a typical power plant, Metzger said.

CPS Energy’s report to the EPA doesn’t say what kind of chromium the plant discharged. However, the federal agency's toxicity modeling assumes some of it is hexavalent chromium or Chromium-6, a chemical linked to cancer,  gastrointestinal problems, respiratory disorders and infertility, according to the report.

Metzger said he's not aware of any studies that show pollutants from CPS Energy's discharge are being passed on to humans who eat fish from the lake. He called on city leaders to conduct such an analysis and apply more scrutiny to the utility's pollution record.

"We think there needs to be more aggressive action to tighten the permits of the Spruce power plant and prevent them from dumping such high amounts of pollution, given this new evidence," he added. 

Days after the report, a CPS spokeswoman contacted the Current to say that Environment Texas' report is based on incorrect data the utility supplied to regulators. Officials are working to update the data, which would likely result in a lower ranking, she added.

The spokeswoman declined to say how much lower the re-reported numbers would be.

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