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Coal Ash Contaminates Our Lives

In the aftermath of a major catastrophe, lawmakers and regulators should be held accountable to create new safety protocols to avert future disasters. Incidents like the Cuyahoga River catching fire and the Exxon Valdez oil spill prompted changes in how we protect our nation’s waters from industrial chemicals. The Buffalo Creek disaster in West Virginia in 1972 likewise prompted changes to the regulation of dams storing toxic materials.

Four years ago, a small Tennessee town woke up to a nightmare. A nearby coal ash pond that held back more than a billion gallons of toxic waste collapsed, sending a flood of ash and dirt right through their doors. In the weeks and months that followed, an entire nation began to see the magnitude of the coal ash threat.

No one who has met Ken will ever forget him.

I first met him in 1999 when I started at Earthjustice. Joe Lovett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates and his colleagues had just won the first-ever federal court ruling against mountaintop removal. This set off a political firestorm in West Virginia and at the U.S. Capitol. Efforts were underway to overturn the decision by exempting mountaintop removal from federal environmental laws.

Each year millions of gallons of toxic chemicals flow into lakes, streams, rivers and bays from our nation’s “surface impoundments”—often referred to as “coal ash” ponds. The well-documented result is the death and mutation of fish and wildlife. Recently, two senior scientists examined the damage from those ponds and put a price on their immense harm.

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