From destructive mountaintop removal coal mining, to greenhouse gas-spewing power plants, to the toxic gunk left behind after coal is burned, there's plenty not to like about the 19th-century energy relic known as coal.
But in 2009, Earthjustice chalked up an important victory in the fight against coal: securing a commitment from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to propose regulations for the toxic byproduct of coal-fired power plants by the end of the year.
After a decade of fighting for regulations to protect Americans from the 130 million tons of toxic coal ash generated each year, it's the day we never thought would come.
For years, federal regulators had puzzled over how to handle this ever-increasing waste product, and opted to take the easy way out: declare it non-hazardous and devise creative, if not entirely safe, disposal methods.
A common industry practice is to plug ash back into coal mines, which has poisoned streams and drinking water supplies across the country with arsenic, lead, chromium, selenium, and other toxins. More information about this dubious disposal method can be found in a January report by Earthjustice, "Waste Deep: Filling Mines with Coal Ash is Profit for Industry but Poison for People."
Another tactic is to mix the pollutant-laden ash with water and dump the toxic brew into unlined or inadequately lined ponds, allowing pollutants to poison groundwater supplies.
Aerial Views of the Kingston Coal Ash Slurry Site
Before the spill
After the spill
This so-called 'wet storage' disposal method was made infamous by the catastrophe at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in December 2008, when a dam holding back 1.1 bullion gallons of coal ash sludge broke, wrecking homes, poisoning two rivers, and killing fish.
EPA's commitment didn't come in time for those who lost their homes and community in the TVA flood. But it will hopefully thwart any future tragedies -- be they cataclysmic dam failures or the slow-motion and largely unseen contamination plumes spreading from coal ash dumps to nearby communities.
In the meantime, there's still more to do: First -- assuring that EPA follows through on its commitment. And second, making sure that the most dangerous form of waste handling -- wet ash storage -- is phased out as soon as possible.
It's all about trying to make room for cleaner energy alternatives. And Earthjustice is leading the charge against this outdated power source on all fronts: blocking mountaintop removal coal mining permits, challenging coal-fired power plants, and finally making sure we have safe coal ash disposal practices in place.