Tons of toxic, mostly unregulated coal ash, threaten state's lifeblood
Coal ash landfill at Florida's Stanton Energy Center, February 2012. (Angelique Giraud / CWA)
Though dubbed the Sunshine State, Florida’s lifeblood is water. With its wetlands, high water table, extremely porous soil and intricate ecosystem, the state's laws are intended to keep its water safe and clean, which is necessary for the state’s very survival.
Unfortunately, the state’s regulations are simply not good enough—especially when it comes to coal ash. Florida produces more than 8 million tons of coal ash each year, yet has one of the worst records in the nation for regulating it. There are no requirements in Florida for liners, siting design, maintenance, or groundwater monitoring for coal ash ponds; the permitting process for constructing coal ash landfills is almost non-existent. In fact, Florida is one of only two states that relaxed portions of its coal ash standards between 1988 and 2005. Something must be done, and Clean Water Action is doing it.
Last week, Clean Water Action in Florida hosted a community meeting in Gainesville to discuss the deleterious effects of coal ash on Florida’s waters. Led by Angelique Giraud, CWA’s Energy Community Organizer, 13 community leaders and concerned citizens gathered to learn more about the toxic waste and determine how best to hold the state accountable.
Though Gainesville has only one coal-burning plant, the Deerhaven Generating Station, there are 15 coal burning plants statewide and 73 coal ash ponds and landfills, 40 percent of which are unlined. Deerhaven’s three ponds and single landfill do happen to be lined, but with clay—a porous, permeable substance that offers no significant protection from water pollution. Because the ponds and landfill also have no leachate collection system, all of the toxic chemicals including arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, selenium and mercury, could be polluting the well water of the surrounding community, made up of mostly seniors dilapidated mobile homes. As one community member outraged:
Do these people know how dangerous this is?
The answer is, probably not. Florida has a history of misinforming their citizens on the dangers of coal ash. As recently as four years ago the Jacksonville Electric Authority delivered EZ base, a byproduct of coal ash used as road-building material to companies and homeowners to use on their properties; soon after, many homeowners were cited by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for having toxic materials on or near residential property. JEA, a public utility, had failed to properly warn the citizens of the potentially hazardous effects of this recycled coal ash byproduct. Many at the community meeting worried that the same thing could happen to them, particularly on the heels of the controversy over the safety and cost-effectiveness of Gainesville Regional Utility, the public utility that owns and operates Deerhaven, phasing into biomass as an energy source.
At the end of the meeting Angelique gave the floor to the group and enthusiastically asked, “So, what’s the next step?” Living in or around the surrounding neighborhood of the plant, the community members didn’t have to think long. They were ready to take the issue to the streets—the streets, homes and drinking water wells of their neighborhood. As one leader said: "They (the citizens) need to be aware. Because they are the ones who need to make the most noise."