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Tr-Ash Talk: Under the Influence

When members of the House of Representatives return to their districts for April recess, many should be called to task for supporting a budget rider that would kill a coal ash rulemaking designed to protect the health, homes and livelihood of their constituents.

How, for example, can one explain the voting record of most of the 25 congressmen whose districts host 49 high hazard coal ash dams  - those impoundments of toxic waste that, by definition, are likely to take human lives if they break?

In a rational world, every one of those members would support an EPA rulemaking that requires the phase-out of these deadly impoundments and the conversion to recycling systems and safer dry disposal. But 16 Republicans and three Democratic congressmen in a dozen states whose districts host at least one, and sometimes several, high hazard ponds, voted for a rider that prevents EPA from requiring such a phase-out.

Remarkably, votes to deny EPA authority to close the deadly ponds come from districts housing 80 percent of the high-hazard impoundments. Rep. Jason Altmire (D, PA), whose district includes this dam, wisely opposed the hijacking of EPA authority, as did the following congressmen with one or more high hazard dams in their district: Reps. Heath Shuler (D, NC), Ed Pastor (D, AZ), John Yarmuth (D, KY), Brad Miller (D, NC) and Chuck Fleischmann (R, TN). Please call your representative to express your gratitude or outrage.

Most of these waste ponds are unlined, held back with earthen dams, and filled with hundreds of millions of gallons of arsenic, lead and mercury-laden waste. Nearly three-fourths of the dams are more than five-stories high, with 15 having a height of at least 10 stories. None has ever been subject to federal regulation. Yet 19 members saw no need to require federal oversight to protect those in their districts who live below these dams. Those constituents have good reason to worry, because, for most of these decades-old ponds there is no requirement for regular state inspections. In several states, operators need not develop emergency response plans, and in at least two states there is no requirement that the dams even be designed by a professional engineer. In fact, about 10 percent were not designed, built, or monitored by professional engineers.

The impact of a dam collapse, like the one that occurred in Tennessee in 2008, would be devastating. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection warns that a collapse of the 40-story high Little Blue Run surface impoundment in Beaver County, PA would endanger 50,000 people.

So, what constituents are served by the votes of the 19 congressmen for this rider to restrict EPA’s authority to close the dams—or by the hundreds of other congressman, many with leaking ponds and landfills in their districts, who also supported stripping EPA authority to enforce cleanup regulations? Turn on the lights and find out. Accountability is the name of the game in this House where the power-holders first protect those who provide the power.

Find out how your member voted and whether you live next to a high hazard coal ash dam. Then please call your representative to express your gratitude or outrage.