Hundreds of concerned citizens are traveling to the Hyatt Regency in Arlington, Virginia on August 30 to urge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pass strong, federally enforceable safeguards for coal ash, the hazardous remains left over from coal-fired power plant operations. The public hearing is the first of seven public hearings the EPA is holding on its much delayed plan to finally regulate toxic coal ash.
Coal ash is the leftover byproduct from burning huge amounts of coal at power plants. It is America’s second largest industrial waste stream, and enough coal ash is generated each year—approximately 150 million tons—that it could fill over 340,000 jumbo 747 jets.
Because of the pollutants in coal ash, leachate from ponds, landfills and fill projects can severely damage health and the environment. The EPA’s 2010 risk assessment found the cancer risk from drinking water contaminated with arsenic from coal ash disposed in unlined ponds is as high as 1 in 50 adults, which is 2,000 times EPA’s deems “acceptable.” Dry landfills can also pose dangers to drinking water and aquatic life, according to the EPA.
While one option the EPA proposed will finally regulate this toxic substance with strong safeguards that protect public health, including water quality monitoring, record keeping and protections against runoff , the other—supported by power companies and other big polluters—would retain the failed status quo and do nothing to monitor the coal ash threat to our drinking water and health.
The lack of federally enforceable safeguards is exactly what led to the disaster in Tennessee in 2008 that destroyed 300 acres and dozens of homes, killed fish and other wildlife and poisoned the Emory and Clinch Rivers. The chemicals in coal ash such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium and others have been linked to cancer, organ disease, respiratory illness, neurological damage and reproductive and developmental problems.
Despite the clear dangers from exposure to coal ash there has been much resistance from industry to regulating the substance as a toxic agent, with power companies lobbying government officials and spreading misinformation. Today, residents from Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Indiana, Puerto Rico and Alabama will counter industry pressure by testifying at the public hearing about their experiences with coal ash. Local and state elected officials are also scheduled to testify at the hearing, and scientists and legal experts will also be on hand to offer insights into the EPA’s proposed coal ash rule.
“Coal ash is contaminating our drinking water supplies and it is more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. We have scientists, scholars and concerned citizens all saying the same thing: coal ash is toxic,” said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice.
“Today it's the people burdened by living near toxic coal ash dumps—rather than just the coal companies—who finally get to have the ear of EPA,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “When it comes to regulating coal ash, the attitude of state agencies is, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ At too many sites, there is no groundwater monitoring at all. When the states do have data showing that toxic pollutants from these dumpsites have leaked into drinking water, their response is frequently too little and too late.”
“The number of people who attended the hearing today, and the distance they travelled to do so shows just how far the problem of toxic coal ash stretches. The current patchwork of failed state regulations is not enough to keep our communities safe. We need EPA to enact federally enforceable protections and to do so before more people are exposed to this toxic mess,” said Lyndsay Moseley, federal policy representative for the Sierra Club.
The EPA will hold additional hearings in:
- Denver, Colorado: Sept. 2
- Dallas, Texas: Sept. 8
- Charlotte, North Carolina: Sept. 14
- Chicago, Illinois: Sept. 16
- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Sept. 21
- Louisville, Kentucky: Sept. 28
Information on additional hearings can be found at the EPA's website.