ACVF Provides Information on the Copano Industrial Waste & Water Treatment Plant Sludge Surface Impoundment Site

We are writing today in order to dispel some of the misinformation circulating in the community with regard to the Copano surface impoundment site of industrial waste and water treatment plant sludge (the “Copano Site” or “Site”). In preparing this piece, we researched the Sherwin Alumina Bankruptcy filings and orders and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (“TCEQ”) records and documents, and have spoken spoke with a retired environmental engineer who is an expert on these sorts of matters, and is familiar with the Copano Site and the Main Facility, as well as what happened in Point Comfort near Port Lavaca. As usual, we rely on facts and present evidence. When we state an opinion or our belief, we make that clear.

We want to emphasize we are in no way seeking to minimize either our concerns or those of the community about the development, construction, and operation of the Copano Site over the past 50+ years, and its remediation and closure, which is ongoing and will continue for many more years. The ACVF would fight against this sort of activity occurring again in our community, and we suspect that all of the government entities, elected officials, and the community would also fight this. We are glad the TCEQ, the government entity with  jurisdiction over these sorts of environmental activities, along with the EPA, has been and will aggressively protect all of our interests and concerns.

History of the Site, Location, and Operation of the Site     

From 1953 to 2000, Reynolds Metals owned and operated an alumina production facility in Gregory, Texas (the “Main Facility”). Starting in the late 1960’s and through the early 1980’s, Reynolds constructed and established the Copano Site. Reynolds had run out of space at its Main Facility in Gregory to deposit waste created from bauxite processing as a result of the alumina manufacturing process, also known as Bauxite Residue. It established the Copano Site as its new waste disposal facility.

The total site is approximately 11,000 acres. There are four disposal areas that cover approximately 3,100 acres of the total site. The disposal areas were used for Bauxite Residue disposal, also known as “Red Mud Beds”. In addition, the San Patricio Municipal Water District had an agreement with Reynolds whereby treated wastewater sludge and storm waters from the District would be pumped to one of the Copano Beds. The Copano Site is approximately eight miles from the Main Facility in Gregory, and is connected by pipelines.

The Copano Site is located approximately ½ mile east and southeast from the intersection of FM Road 136 and Highway 188 in Aransas and San Patricio Counties. Click here to view an aerial view of the Site and its location relative to our community.

In 2000, Reynolds sold the Main Facility and the Copano Site to BPU Reynolds (required by the federal government in connection with Alcoa’s acquisition of Reynolds to avoid antitrust law concerns). In 2001, BPU Reynolds sold the Main Facility to Sherwin Alumina. Sherwin Alumina operated the Main Facility and Copano Site from that time until it filed for Bankruptcy in 2016.

Upon filing for Bankruptcy, Sherwin Alumina ceased operations at the Main Facility and stopped pumping Bauxite Residue to the Copano Site. The Bed used for treated wastewater sludge and storm waters continues in operation to this day pursuant to a TCEQ permit and are part of the Copano Site remediation and closure operations. Click here to view the permit. 

According to the environmental engineer we spoke with, all of Reynolds’ activities with respect to the development and operation of the Site would have received various approvals and permits from the TCEQ and its predecessor agencies. Click here to view the history of the TCEQ. Click the following link to view a listing of Sherwin Alumina’s most recent inactive and expired permits:

https://www15.tceq.texas.gov/crpub/index.cfm?fuseaction=regent.showSingleRN&re_id=638331662006081

Aransas County and San Patricio County have never had any jurisdictional authority over the permitting of waste facilities or hazardous sites, nor any water treatment facilities, during any of the time periods involved with the Copano Site.

Click here to read a history of the site, which is set forth in the TCEQ Settlement Agreement discussed below.

The Sherwin Alumina Bankruptcy and the TCEQ and Environmental Settlement Agreements

As noted above, immediately upon filing for Bankruptcy, Sherwin ceased operations at the Main Facility, and stopped pumping Bauxite Residue to the Copano Site, but continued to manage and maintain the Copano site as required by its TCEQ permit. Initially, Sherwin Alumina wanted to reorganize and continue operations, but this fell through. Sherwin Alumina then sought to sell substantially all of its assets, but no bidder would take on the Copano Site and Sherwin Alumina’s other assets with actual or potential environmental liabilities and risks. So, Sherwin sought approval of the sale of certain assets and the abandonment of others.

TCEQ, the only Texas government entity with the authority and jurisdiction over the Copano Site and its remediation and closure activities, stepped into the Bankruptcy to stop any sale until future responsibility for remediation and closure of the Site was resolved to the satisfaction of the TCEQ. Click here to view TCEQ’s complaint.

About the same time, Sherwin Alumina sued Reynolds and its parent Alcoa seeking to hold them financially responsible for the remediation and closure of the Site since they were the entities that created the environmental problems after 50 years of operating the Main Facility and the Copano Site. Click here to view Sherwin Alumina’s complaint.

After a couple of years of litigation and negotiations, all of the parties entered into settlement agreements that were approved by the Bankruptcy Court in the middle of 2018, and Sherwin’s sale of assets was approved.

Click here to view a summary of and the complete TCEQ Settlement Agreement.

Click here to view the Court Order approving the TCEQ Settlement Agreement.

Click here to view a summary of the Environmental Claims Settlement Agreement.

Click here to view the Court Order Approving the Environmental Claims Settlement Agreement.

As a result of the foregoing agreements, Reynolds and Alcoa ultimately agreed to become operationally and financially responsible for all remediation, closure, and post closure activities at the Copano Site. Highlights of the settlement agreements follow.

  • A new special purpose entity was formed – Copano Enterprises LLC – to conduct the remediation, closure, and post closure activities related to the Site subject to applicable laws and to ongoing TCEQ requirements, reviews, inspections, and approvals. In addition, Copano Enterprises is required to provide ongoing periodic reporting of its activities, including providing soils, ground water, surface water, air quality, and other testing and assessments, to the TCEQ and the community.
  • Copano Enterprises is required to engage in a Community Engagement program, which includes a complaint and information hotline for residents to call and hosting meetings for the local community to report on testing results and environmental assessments.
  • Copano Enterprises’ remediation and closure plans are subject to TCEQ review and approval. Copano Enterprises is required to close all four Beds at the Copano Site, the pipeline, and all related equipment by 2028 (Bed 1) and 2048 (Beds 2 – 4).
  • Reynolds and Alcoa provided (i) an unlimited performance guarantee to fulfill all obligations of the settlement agreement, (ii) $12 million to a separate trust for costs associated with the closure and post closure care of the Site, and (iii) additional financial assurances upon TCEQ approval of the closure plans.

What Has Happened at the Copano Site Since the Settlement Agreements

According to the environmental engineer we spoke with, the operation, remediation, and closure activities appear to have met all TCEQ requirements. In those few instances where there has been non-compliance, remedial actions have been taken to the satisfaction of the TCEQ.

Copano Enterprises, and a subsidiary named CE Ranch LLC, have established a website that describes the operation, remediation, and closure activities at the Site, along with the results numerous reports, studies, and assessments dating from the settlement agreement through 2021. Click the following link to view the website: https://www.copanobeds.com/.

At a Virtual Public Meeting on December 15, 2020, hosted by CE Ranch and the TCEQ, an “Affected Property Assessment Report” was presented and discussed. The report contained an evaluation of results of sample analysis of soil, groundwater, surface water, and sediment at the Copano Site. The main findings of the assessment were as follows:

  • Soils: No contamination to surrounding land.
  • Groundwater: No contamination in groundwater beneath and adjacent to the Site.
  • Surface Water and Sediment: No contamination in nearby water bodies.
  • Ecological Risk Assessment to Wildlife (Plants and Animals): It was determined that there would be no effect to local wildlife due to low concentrations of so-called “constituents of concern”, including metals (aluminum, antimony, arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, thallium, and vanadium), radium, uranium, and fluoride, all of which were below criteria established by the TCEQ.

Click here to view a copy of the “COPANO SITE (BEDS 1-4) FINDINGS OF ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENTS”, dated December 15, 2020.

Click here to view Questions from the Virtual Public Meeting.

We specifically note, contrary to what has been suggested by some, that the mercury levels at the Copano Site are below TCEQ required levels.

The environmental engineer we spoke to noted that a few of the water wells on adjacent properties within a quarter mile of the site were above allowed levels for drinking water for fluoride, uranium, and radium.  The engineer noted these chemicals of concern were not noted in the monitoring wells immediately adjacent to the impoundments, and also noted there is a uranium mine near Goliad, so it is known these are naturally occurring in the local geology. The engineer also noted that high fluoride levels are common in brackish wells, which these wells most likely are. The engineer noted that the wells are not in use for drinking water or agricultural purposes. The engineer concluded that since the wells are in a deeper aquifer and more distant, it seems unlikely that the waste site is contributing to the presence of these chemicals.

Based on the totality of the above, we believe that the Copano Site remediation and closure is on track and has met all TCEQ requirements.

Jurisdiction and Role of the Commissioners Court

It has been suggested that the Commissioners Court and County Judge Mills should have become involved in the Sherwin Alumina Bankruptcy proceedings when they started in 2016 and that had they become involved, more could have been done to protect the interests of the citizens of Aransas County. It has also been suggested that the Commissioners Court and the Judge’s failure to become involved was because of incompetence, indifference, or involvement.

We disagree with these suggestions for a number of reasons.

First, as noted above, Aransas County has never had any jurisdictional authority over the permitting of waste facilities or sites of any type, nor any water treatment facilities during any of the time periods involved with the Copano Site, including the time when the Bankruptcy was filed and up to today.

Second, the TCEQ was and is the sole Texas government agency responsible over environmental matters such as those presented in the Bankruptcy and the Copano Site.

Third, we believe it would have been a waste of taxpayers’ money when the TCEQ had already filed its complaint in the Bankruptcy and was on top of the case.

Fourth, since the County doesn’t possess the authorities granted to the TCEQ, which are powerful and vast when it comes to environmental matters such as those presented in this instance, we seriously doubt that Aransas County could have achieved any outcome better than what the TCEQ did with respect to the remediation and closure of the Copano Site.

And finally, what other remediation and closure plan would the County, or anyone else, have suggested back in 2016 or even today? According to the environmental engineer, impoundment sites (or Red Mud Beds), should not be disturbed once they are established and operating since this may only expose them and the surrounding area to greater risks of harm. Rather, the ongoing remediation and closure of the Site, along with maintenance, monitoring, and testing, is the best method to be used under the circumstances. Tellingly, those who have been critical of the County offer up no other alternatives for addressing the Copano Site today.

The Underlying Politics Involved

We don’t question anyone’s concerns over the environment in our community, including concerns about the Copano “Red Mud Beds” Site. In this instance, however, we believe this issue of “County involvement or lack thereof in the Copano Site matter” is designed to make the Commissioners Court and the County Judge look bad, thereby creating a political issue to use against them, including voting Judge Mills out of office in the upcoming County Judge election.

It also has been suggested that the Copano “Red Mud Beds” Site matter is evidence that no government entity in the community really cares about preserving and conserving the local environment, except for the Nav District.

So there you have it — create an issue, hype it the best you can in the community, and then use it for political ends.

We hope this article has better informed the community on this important issue. After reading this article, we ask you to judge for yourselves.

The ACVF has endorsed Judge Mills for re-election as Aransas County Judge. We believe he is the most qualified and experienced candidate. We urge all of our friends and supporters to vote for Judge Mills. Click here to read our endorsement of Judge Mills.

ARANSAS COMMUNITY VALUES FUND