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Tr-Ash Talk: Yet Another Coal Ash Spill

We’re closing in on the 3-year anniversary of the TVA coal ash disaster and there are still no federal regulations in place protecting us from coal ash. And now, another spill: in Oak Creek, Wisconsin a bluff collapsed, sending coal ash and debris from We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant into Lake Michigan.

Writing this off as a “freak accident” or “mudslide” is a dangerous err in judgment. Coal ash has toxic levels of arsenic, hexavalent chromium, mercury, lead and other chemicals. Would you want that in your drinking water? No, and sadly, that is a reality to people who live near these sites in Wisconsin.

We’re still waiting on details from this spill (how many tons of coal ash, how far does it extend, etc.) and there are many questions. Maureen Wolff lives a mile from the power plant and walked to the shoreline shortly after the incident. She saw the dark color of the debris and wondered if it was coal ash.

“All this is going along the coast line and they’re telling people all it is is just a few trailers and possibly some tools. No one is saying what exactly is in it,” she is quoted saying in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The power plant confirmed later that coal ash likely ended up in the lake, which is the drinking water supply for 40 million people.  Apparently there were no wells monitoring the coal ash fill, so we don’t know if heavy metals from the coal ash deposit have been polluting the lake even before the spill, and if these contaminants are flowing through groundwater to the lake now.  It is inexcusable for We Energies, who knew that coal ash was buried onsite next to an unlined pond, to fail to determine the stability of the fill site and its potential to contaminate Lake Michigan.

How many more spills before Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency take action to finally protect people from this toxic waste stream? Ironically, Wisconsin is sometimes referred to as “the gold standard” for states handling disposal of coal ash. Yet between this spill and the 13 documented cases of contamination from coal ash in Wisconsin, it’s clear that even the “best” state’s standards don’t always protect water quality.  This is why we need federal oversight to rein in this toxic waste and protect our drinking water and the nation’s invaluable water resources, like the Great Lakes.

The EPA has yet to release its coal ash proposal, but in the meantime the House of Representatives passed a dangerous bill that will fail to protect people from TVA-like spills  or continued contamination in communities across the country.

Wisconsin Representatives Ron Kind, Tammy Baldwin and Gwen Moore voted for this bill (seemingly to protect the interests of We Energies) despite the inadequate protections.  This spill reminds us that serving utility interests doesn’t serve even the basic public interest of protecting water quality.  And unfortunately we must wait as the Senate recently introduced the same toothless bill - S.1751).  We hope Senator Kohl and other coal state Senators will stand up to polluters, like We Energies, in light of this spill and oppose this bill or any other legislation that fails to protect public health and the environment.

We’ve got advocates coming in at the end of the week to meet with Senate staffers and EPA officials to fight for these much-needed protections. Clearly, we need these safeguards now more than ever.

A statement from Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans:

This is not some ‘freak accident,’ for a century, billions of tons coal ash has been buried, piled and ponded without regulation and without consideration of the consequences.  We’re coming up on the 3-year anniversary of the TVA coal ash disaster and it is disheartening that we still have no measures in place to protect the public against toxic ash. While we wait for yet another clean-up, we’re battling Senate polluter benefactors who deny that coal ash is anything but mud. If this Senate legislation sees the light of day it must be stopped in its tracks by the White House. This event must be a wake-up call for our government to take action now.

 

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.