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Tr-Ash Talk: The Whole Enchilada

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency hosted hearings in Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta to hear public comments about their proposal to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants. If finalized, these health protections will reduce mercury and acid gas emissions by 91 percent, reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 55 percent, and capture toxic chemicals like arsenic and hexavalent chromium.

Where will this toxic soup of pollution end up? Unfortunately, in the toxic coal ash that has already poisoned more than 130 sites across the country. If the EPA doesn’t finalize a Subtitle C coal ash standard, which would designate coal ash a hazardous waste, with a timeline that coincides with cleaning up smokestacks, we’ll see an increased quantity and toxicity of the ash that will pose an even more egregious threat to public health.  

During their testimony last week, many community members who live in the shadows of coal-fired power plants pointed out that controlling power plant air emissions is only a partial fix to protecting people from the toxic pollution produced when burning coal. They live beneath the smokestacks and next to the coal ash dumps. Though the air standard will do wonders to improve air quality in the U.S., without Subtitle C regulation of coal ash, all that toxic gunk collected from the smokestacks will end up in our bodies through contaminated water and breathing in fugitive dust from improperly regulated coal ash disposal sites. 

The EPA has done an excellent job calculating the health benefits of controlling air pollution from power plants, which include the following reductions.

In 2016, these proposed rules would avoid:

  •     6,800 – 17,000 premature deaths,
  •     4,500 cases of chronic bronchitis,
  •     11,000 nonfatal heart attacks,
  •     12,200 hospital and emergency room visits,
  •     11,000 cases of acute bronchitis,
  •     220,000 cases of respiratory symptoms,
  •     850,000 days when people miss work,
  •     120,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and
  •     5.1 million days when people must restrict their activities

The impacts of more toxic ash, however, have not been assessed.  Transferring toxics like mercury from one waste stream to another doesn’t reduce pollution, it simply changes the pathways that impact communities across the country. And in the case of coal ash, where there aren’t the same types of science-based health projections available, all we know is that there will be more toxic ash to further plague already burdened communities. This means more coal ash-related illnesses, like cancer, developmental disorders, reproductive damage, and internal organ problems, until we clean up this dangerous waste stream. 

To truly fulfill the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency—to protect human health and the environment—the agency must finalize the power plant air toxics rule AND a Subtitle C coal ash rule. 

Tags:  Tr-Ash Talk