For the last 180 days, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has held up the first ever federal regulations on coal ash disposal. Lobbyists with the power, mining and coal ash industries have met with OMB nearly 30 times during this delay, putting pressure on the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to scale back and even scuttle any effective federal oversight of this toxic threat.
Today, environmental leaders from 239 national, state and local public interest groups from all 50 states appealed directly to President Barack Obama to issue these regulations and "trigger the public process of rulemaking, thereby ensuring a fair and open process in which all stakeholders have an equal opportunity to address the complexities of the proposed rule," the groups wrote.
Since the disastrous spill in Harriman, TN, in December 2008, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has promised to issue federally enforceable safeguards for coal ash. But despite her best efforts, the rule has been delayed by OMB as millions of Americans living near over 1,000 coal ash dumps wait for stronger protections against this toxic threat. "Continued delay in the issuance of federal regulations for the disposal of the 136 million tons of toxic coal combustion waste generated annually is dangerous and unacceptable," the groups wrote in their letter. "Unmitigated harm, often to low-income and communities of color, continues to threaten the lives and environment of millions of Americans."
“This is an unacceptable delay,” said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice. “While public interest groups have met with OMB, industry has clearly been breaking down the door. It’s time President Obama made good on his commitment to cut corporate influence and make this rule public so the people can have a chance to participate in this process. The EPA submitted their proposal to OMB last October and we strongly urge OMB to finally allow them to proceed.”
Coal ash is an abundant and dangerous byproduct of coal-fired power plants. The EPA and the Department of Energy estimate there are approximately 1,600 active and inactive coal ash ponds and landfills throughout the U.S. Coal-fired power plants produce approximately 136 million cubic yards of coal ash per year, enough to fill nearly 100 Empire State buildings, or enough to fill the cars of a train stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole.
Coal ash often contains dangerously high levels of toxic pollutants like arsenic, lead, selenium and mercury. According to the EPA, cancer risk for children exposed to arsenic in drinking water from unlined coal ash ponds is as high as 1 in 50, or 2,000 times greater than the EPA’s own goal of acceptable cancer risk of 1 in 100,000 individuals.
"We've spent far more time and effort regulating ordinary household garbage than we have the mountains of coal ash that American power plants generate every year," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "These sites have contaminated drinking water wells, creeks, and wetlands with arsenic and other toxic metals, and the problem is only going to spread unless the EPA acts. When you consider how much damage has already been done, regulating these coal ash dumpsites ought to be a no-brainer."
Industries are pressuring this administration with fear mongering and deceit, arguing incorrectly that regulating coal ash will stigmatize recycling coal ash.
"Again, we’re hearing this same tired industry line that the sky is falling — another attempt to avoid any type of clean up. It's time the coal industry was held accountable to properly dispose of its waste," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.
Communities near coal ash dumps face poisoned drinking water supplies, polluted rivers, lakes, streams and other water, and decades-old dams that threaten to fail. Often low-income and communities of color bear the burden of exposure to toxic coal ash.
"Environmental justice communities all across the country are appealing to President Obama to stand firm on his administration's commitment to good science in its policy decisions and not cave in to the powerful coal lobby," said Dr. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. "President Obama should not compromise the health of low-income and people of color residents who most often live on the fenceline with the toxic coal ash threat."
Leading scientists agree that coal ash is a "deadly poison to fish and wildlife and a threat to human health when improperly managed." The letter references a separate letter sent to OMB by Drs. E. Dennis Lemly and Christopher Rowe, who asserted that "Threats and impacts are not being addressed by the coal power industry."
"Leading scientists agree that coal ash is a deadly poison to fish and wildlife and a threat to human health when improperly managed," said Frances Beinecke, president of Natural Resources Defense Council. "Waste from coal operations is clearly hazardous and the EPA has an obligation to regulate such hazardous waste to protect public health and the environment."
Jared Saylor, Earthjustice (202) 667-4500, ext. 213
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.