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Tr-Ash Talk: The Coal Breath of Betrayal

The House’s embrace of David McKinley’s (R-WV) amendment and its attachment to the transportation bill is nothing short of a deadly betrayal of public health. This measure ensures that the nation’s dangerous and leaking coal ash ponds and landfills will continue to operate indefinitely without regulation or federal oversight. If it passes the Senate, it may be the most effective protection of Big Coal ever enacted by Congress.

Clearly such protection is at the expense of thousands of communities where toxic coal ash is dumped into drinking water, stacked high above towns, and blown into the lungs of children. The House has conveniently forgotten the largest toxic waste spill in U.S. history, which occurred in 2008 when a coal ash pond collapsed onto a riverside town in Kingston, TN, sweeping away houses and permanently destroying a community.

Instead of addressing the nationwide problem, the House amendment prevents the EPA from regulating coal ash and setting minimum standards for safe disposal. As a result, disposal of banana peels and other household trash would be more stringently regulated in the U.S. than the dumping of toxic ash.

This makes absolutely no sense—except the cents it makes for Big Coal. With this amendment, the nation’s utilities have bought themselves an exemption from federal waste disposal law. Coal would be the first industry to receive such a free pass.

At stake is the nation’s health. Regulation of coal ash disposal is needed to save lives. In 2010, the EPA found that the cancer risk from arsenic near some unlined coal ash ponds was 1 in 50, which is 2,000 times the EPA’s regulatory goal. This risk is immense—there are 700+ coal ash ponds in 35 states.

After the 2008 Kingston disaster, the Obama administration pledged to protect people and fix this problem by establishing federal rules for disposal. But next month their proposal will have languished for two full years. Now, thanks to the House, the fix is in for Big Coal.

We call on the Senate and the Obama administration to ensure this dangerous amendment is not included in any final transportation bill. Many lives depend on it.

The Kingston, TN, coal ash spill. In 2008, residents all along the Emory River woke up to the tragedy of 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash that spilled from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant. The spill covered 300 acres, destroyed homes, poisoned rivers and contaminated coves and residential drinking waters. (TVA)

Clean-up operations of the massive 2008 Kingston, TN, coal ash spill. (TVA)