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Tr-Ash Talk: Please, Not in Their Backyard

(This is the latest in a weekly series of 50 Tr-Ash Talk blogs discussing the dangers of coal ash. Earthjustice hopes that by December 2011, the third anniversary of the TVA coal ash spill, the EPA will release a coal ash rule establishing federally enforceable regulations ensuring the safe disposal of this toxic waste.)

The average home value in Round O, South Carolina, is just above $66K. The average household income is below $30K. And now, according to an article in a local newspaper, a power company plans on building a site to store toxic coal ash from its coal plant nearby.

Is it coincidental that these impoundments are often built near low-income communities? We think not. It’s a known phenomenon that low-income and people of color neighborhoods across the country face disproportionately high levels of air and water pollution and exposure to toxic waste and other health hazards because federal environmental laws often are not fairly enforced. And sadly, Round O, fits the profile.

While we wait on the EPA to release a federally enforceable coal ash rule that would ensure the safe disposal of this toxic waste, President Barack Obama has signed an executive order that aims to achieve "balance" in federal regulations -- between ensuring public health and safety and promoting economic growth.

Obama ordered a comprehensive review of federal regulations to rid the government of rules that are outdated and harmful to the economy. This housecleaning is a necessary task for our government agencies but must not replace the goals set by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to address some of the greatest threats to our health and environment, including the regulation of the toxic byproduct of burning coal. It’s the only way communities like Round O will get any protection.

The story about the 6,000-person community describes it as one that "includes mobile homes and small houses, as well as farms that have been in families for generations." One source is quoted saying: "They always put things like this in poor communities because they don’t vote and they don’t say nothing."

But this community is plenty angry. They are gathering in numbers and pushing the local city council to formally oppose the 15-story coal ash landfill.

After the 2008 TVA coal ash disaster, communities are not so willing to be neighbors to a toxic coal ash pond. And they have plenty reason to be afraid: coal ash is filled with arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, selenium, and many other dangerous pollutants that can cause cancer and damage the nervous system and other organs, especially in children. For years, power and coal companies have been dumping poisonous coal ash into unlined landfills and unsafe ponds. Never mind another TVA-like disaster, this stuff can leak into your drinking water.

These residents aren’t stupid. It’s not just any old landfill. It’s one filled with something much more dangerous.

"Certainly no one wants a trash dump, but this is not a trash dump," said Bill Hiott in the article. "It’s contaminated waste being put in the ground."

The EPA must keep its eye on the prize. There are probably very few benign substances on the agency’s hazardous waste list. In fact, today the EPA should be much more concerned with what is missing from that list — toxic coal combustion waste.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.