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Coal ash spills onto nation's radar

Earthjustice Press Secretary Kathleen Sutcliffe provides this report on the grave threats posed by toxic coal ash produced at our nation's coal-fired power plants, and the quick action taken by Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans after recent coal ash spills

Quick quiz, readers.

The byproduct of coal-fired power plants is:

a) the nation’s second largest industrial waste stream;

b) chock full of arsenic, lead, and other toxins;

c) unregulated by federal waste laws; or

d) all of the above

If you guessed 'd,' you’re right. Maybe it was a cynical guess…or maybe you’ve been following recent news of toxic coal ash spills at two separate Tennessee Valley Authority power plants.

For decades, utility companies had managed to keep the 129 million tons of toxic coal ash they generate each year out of the limelight and under the regulatory radar.

But that all changed on December 22, when a dam holding back a 40-acre coal ash waste pond collapsed at an eastern Tennessee TVA power plant, emptying 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge into the surrounding community and the nearby Emory and Clinch rivers. Less than three weeks later, a second spill was reported at a TVA power plant in northern Alabama.

Suddenly, Americans (and their elected representatives) were given a bird’s eye view of the dangers of coal ash. And they didn’t like what they saw: 300 acres of sludge-coated land, contaminated rivers, levels of arsenic at more than 100 times the maximum level allowed by the federal government.

Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans has long kept tabs on this dangerous and unregulated waste stream, sounding the alarm not just on large-scale disasters, but on the slow motion disasters taking place at coal ash dumps all over the country, where toxins from the ash threaten to seep into drinking water supplies.

At the news of the disasters, Evans leapt into action, requesting that a federal court oversee TVA site cleanup and remediation. And she joined forces with Earthjustice Legislative Counsel Ben Dunham, educating policymakers and members of the media, and releasing a report documenting the unseen threat posed by toxic coal ash that is dumped in active and abandoned coal mines.

Policy makers took notice. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) hosted a Senate oversight hearing on coal ash. Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) introduced legislation to regulate coal ash disposal. And at her Senate confirmation hearing, Lisa Jackson, President Barack Obama’s, nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, vowed the agency would assess hundreds of coal ash disposal sites.

Although we are hopeful that policy makers act quickly enough to prevent a future disaster, Earthjustice will be working - through litigation, legislation, and administratively - to make sure they do.