Coal ash ‘storms’ are plaguing the Moapa River Indian Reservation, tribal home of a band of Paiute Indians. Vickie Simmons (left) stands on a hill between the Reid Gardner Power Plant and her house on the reservation. "When I'm up here I can see that coal ash blowing right at my house." The coal ash ponds (right) stretch across the desert from the power plant to within a few hundred yards of the homes of Moapa Paiutes. (Chris Jordan / Earthjustice)
It starts with a warning. Then it’s just a matter of which way the wind blows.
In the evening, someone will go from house to house and tell the neighborhood that tomorrow will be a windy day and, perhaps, a bad air day.
The next afternoon if the conditions are just wrong, coal ash picks up from the landfills and slag ponds of the Reid Gardner Power Station and moves across the desert like a sandstorm.
“But this is a sandstorm that burns your skin, buries in your lungs and kills your neighbors,” says Calvin Myers, a tribal elder who lives on the Moapa River Indian Reservation, tribal home of a band of Paiute Indians that sits about 30 miles north of Las Vegas and about 300 yards from Reid Gardner.
Myers and the remaining 310 members of his tribe are locked in a David-and-Goliath struggle against one power plant’s desire to expand and an industry’s desire to keep a dirty secret.
“For years, I didn’t even know what it was that was blowing from the plant onto the reservation,” says Vicki Lee, who can see the plant from her kitchen window. “Once we learned what coal ash was and what’s in it, well, that’s when we stood up and said, no.”
It’s no secret that coal is our dirtiest energy source. However, what the industry doesn’t want us to know is that as coal burns, many of its most toxic elements, including heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and chromium, are concentrated in the ash that remains and the sludge that’s scrubbed from smokestacks. This by-product is called coal ash. It’s the second largest industrial waste stream in America and is essentially unregulated.
Environmental groups are suing to stop Reid Gardner’s plans to expand the coal ash landfill and scrubber waste ponds for the plant. While these groups are working on the ground in Nevada, Earthjustice is working to see that coal ash is regulated across the nation.
“These unregulated sites present a clear and present danger to public health and the environment,” says Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “If law and science are to guide our most important environmental decisions, as EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has promised, we need to regulate these hazards before they get much worse.”
An Ill Wind: The Secret Threat of Coal Ash: Watch a four-part video series on the Moapa River Indian Reservation, and their fight against the devastating effects of coal ash pollution.