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coal ash

The U.S. Capitol building.

Lobbying is the act of attempting to influence decisions made by officials in the government. It conjures up an image of a guy in a $5,000 suit slipping money into a senator’s pockets. It’s seemingly taboo to lobby, and as a public policy major I find my answer to the often-repeated question of “So, are you going to sell out and become a lobbyist when you graduate?” being “Absolutely not!”

But, as I learned during my time here, “lobbying” has a much-more layered definition.

A mother and child near an industrial plant.

Last week, the independent investigative news site ProPublica released a major new investigative report on the most powerful government office you’ve probably never heard of: the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, known as “OIRA” for short.

The devastating TVA Kingston coal ash spill of 2008.

It was standing room only, today, in a stately meeting room in the U.S. Capitol building as Senate staffers and a group of citizens gathered for a briefing about the hazards of toxic coal ash waste. Earthjustice and the Sierra Club organized the briefing in an effort to educate elected officials and their staff on the importance of keeping off the Senate floor any legislation that would prevent the EPA from regulating this toxic waste.

Google Earth satellite images of coal ash wastewater pollution from the Mill Creek Generating Station into the Ohio River.

When you think about pollution from coal-burning power plants, you probably picture smokestacks spewing out dirty air. What most people don’t realize is that coal plants are a huge water polluter—leaking more toxic pollution into America’s waters than any other U.S. industry.

We’ve filed two cases recently—one in Kentucky and one in Florida—to stop these toxic discharges into the Ohio River and the Apalachicola River.

President Clinton signs the Executive Order in the Oval Office (February 11, 1994).

In 1982, when I was a young lawyer in North Carolina, the state had to clean up miles of roadsides where toxic PCBs had been illegally dumped. The state decided to dispose of the toxic waste in a landfill which it proposed to place in a predominantly low-income African-American community in Warren County, far from where the clean-up was occurring. The decision sparked protests from the community, and activists from the broader civil rights world joined the fight.

The toxic coal ash turned the Dan River gray for 20 miles east of the North Carolina border.

Although the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources found Duke Energy in gross violation of the federal Clean Water Act, the state agency placed so little value on public health that they were willing to settle for a pittance—a penny per ton of toxic coal ash stored at Duke’s two illegally polluting plants. To rub ash into the wound, the agency didn’t even require Duke to stop the flow of arsenic, cadmium, chromium and other toxic metals from the millions of tons of coal ash at the plants, much less clean up the pollution.

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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.