Federal court victory ushers in new health standards
The Kingston coal ash disaster in December 2008. (TVA)
Five years ago, fish biologists scooped up a catfish full of toxic ash from the Kingston coal ash disaster.
Last month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia brought us one step closer to ensuring such a disaster will never happen again. The court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency must set federal standards to prevent another potentially deadly disaster, protecting aquatic life and the hundreds of communities that live near coal-burning power plants.
Catfish with coal ash from the Emory River, TN, December 2008.
(Courtesy of Dr. Shea R. Tuberty, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC)
This momentous decision requires the EPA to finally set federal regulations for the safe disposal of toxic coal ash. Our lawsuit was a deadline case to force the EPA to review and revise its regulations pertaining to coal ash—the second largest industrial waste stream generated in the United States. These regulations had not been revised for decades, and they currently contain no specific standards to address the serious health and environmental damage caused by coal ash.
The nation was awakened to the threat posed by coal ash almost five years ago after the earthen dam at TVA’s Kingston power plant collapsed—releasing more than 1 billon gallons of toxic waste into rivers and destroying an idyllic waterfront community. Following that disaster, then-Administrator Lisa Jackson made a commitment to issue regulations requiring the safe disposal of toxic ash within the year. That was 2009.
Although the EPA eventually published draft regulations in 2010, little progress was made in the last three-and-a-half years, despite intense public interest. The scope of the coal ash threat is immense—and this ruling comes none too soon to protect the air, water and public safety of communities living near more than 1,000 toxic ash impoundments, over 350 landfills, and countless pits of coal ash found in almost every state in this nation. Coal ash has already contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers with toxic pollutants like arsenic, lead, selenium and mercury.
We turned to the courts to force the EPA to set long-overdue protections from this toxic menace, and they did not disappoint. This decision marks the first step towards long overdue federally enforceable safeguards.
No one should have to live in fear of the coal ash dump in their backyard, and now the EPA must finally adopt regulations that protect all neighboring communities. We are deeply thankful that protection from waterborne and airborne toxic chemicals is on the way this year.