From nukes to coal ash: regulators must distinguish fact from fiction
Coal ash flood in Tennessee
“We all have a responsibility to ensure that the American people have facts and the truth in front of them, particularly when fictions are pushed by special interests with an investment in the outcome.” - EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in testimony before Congress on March 10 in response to false claims by Republicans and special interest groups concerning the reach and impact of proposed regulations.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) railed at a recent Congressional hearing about EPA regulations that treat spilled milk on dairy farms like spilled oil. The fact that this is plainly false did not stop him from saying it, nor Rep. Morgan Griffith (R- VA) from spreading the lie in a newsletter to his constituents, nor did it deter the Wall Street Journal from publishing the editorial that started the rumor. The fact that dairy industry representatives supported the EPA apparently carried little weight or news value.
Big lies are popular currency on Capital Hill. Another circulating in Congress is that federal regulation of coal ash will “kill” all beneficial reuse of ash, that the reliability of the electric grid is threatened by a coal ash rule, and that the cost of safely disposing of coal ash is too high for coal-burning power plants or consumers to bear.
Repeated loudly and often, publicized on websites, and decried before congressional committees, these falsehoods may eventually become the basis of national policy. Should this occur, this administration will have missed a singular opportunity to enact essential safeguards for those communities whose water, air and even lives are threatened by the dumping of toxic ash. And their failure to do so will be built on lies.
The oft-repeated lies, floated again and again like bright balloons (and no more substantial), threaten to obscure the hard facts—that well over 100 communities have already been contaminated by hazardous chemicals from coal ash dumps.
Disaster can result when deception forms the basis of public policy. Did the Japanese industry officials who last month secured a 10-year extension for the 40-year old reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant claim that it was safe from the region’s increasingly more frequent and severe earthquakes? Did they defend the antiquated design of the reactor, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission long ago concluded was susceptible to explosion and containment failure? Did the industry make claims that a tsunami would not impact the outmoded generator required to prevent a meltdown? Did fiction trump fact despite the immensely high stakes?
There is a lesson in the tragic disaster unfolding in Japan. Crying foul over spilled milk reveals a much more essential truth. In light of the meltdown at Fukushima and the many (albeit much smaller tragedies) from communities threatened at toxic dump sites across the United States, it is clear that regulators must not rely blindly on the claims of the self-interested. It is their clear responsibility to shine a light on the facts and decipher the truth.
For more information on the campaign of disinformation surrounding coal ash, see our “Facts and Myths” fact sheet.