Grassroots environmental advocates joined with national groups Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Integrity Project to raise awareness across the country of the dangers of coal ash and to call for federal regulations of the toxic waste.
Today's Coal Ash Day of Action was marked with an overwhelming grassroots effort to generate letters to newspapers and opinion leaders, as well as thousands of emails and phone calls to the White House and members of Congress.
For over a year, the EPA has been working on plans for the first ever federal rules meant to safeguard communities from the hazards of coal ash ponds and landfills. But concerted industry pressure from some of the country's biggest polluters has stalled the EPA's plans.
"We're sending a message to the White House and the polluters that, on behalf of millions of Americans, we will not stand for any further delay," said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. "If the polluters can take their message to the administration, then so can we."
Since the EPA sent a proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget for review last October, industry lobbyists working on behalf of electric utilities, coal-fired power plants and the cement industry have met at least 21 times to push for a relaxed approach that would preserve the status quo: coal ash disposal sites would remain unregulated by federal agencies best equipped to handle such a hazardous waste.
"EPA's proposal to regulate coal ash is still bottled up at the White House Office of Management and Budget, where industry lobbyists are trying to work their will behind closed doors," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director for Environmental Integrity Project. "The Obama Administration needs to get this proposal out into the sunshine, and keep its promise to make decisions that are transparent, and guided by both law and science."
Coal ash is the toxic waste generated by coal-burning power plants. The United States generates 130 million tons of coal ash each year. There are 584 coal ash ponds across the country filled with enough coal ash to flow continuously over Niagara Falls for three days straight. An equal amount of the toxic ash is buried in unlined and unmonitored landfills and millions of additional tons are being dumped in mines and quarries with no safeguards. Pollution in coal ash leads to cancer, organ failure and nervous system damage. Despite the fact that these sites pose risks to human health and environment, the U.S. EPA has never regulated coal ash disposal.
"We know that coal ash is becoming increasingly toxic, with harmful levels of arsenic, selenium and other pollutants; we know that those living near coal ash sites face an increased risk of cancer; and we know that the current patchwork of state regulations is woefully inadequate in protecting our communities," said Lyndsay Moseley, who works on coal ash issues for the Sierra Club. "Common sense says it is time for change, the sooner the better."
More than 100 grassroots and national organizations from Kentucky to Indiana and New Mexico to Maryland are taking action today to send a strong, unified message that delay is no longer acceptable. Several grassroots organizations, including West Virginia's Coal River Mountain Watch, Oklahoma's Local Environmental Action Demanded and Tennessee's Watauga Watershed Alliance among many others have sent letters to newspapers demanding that coal ash be regulated as a hazardous waste.
"Improperly managed, coal ash can pollute water tables, rivers and streams with arsenic, lead and other toxic chemicals," Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with Natural Resources Defense Council. "The EPA wants to treat coal ash as the hazardous waste that it is but, predictably, the coal industry and utilities that rely on coal have besieged the White House with lobbyists intent on derailing the protections we need. The Obama administration has pledged to put public health above industry pressure. We expect the White House to live up to that promise in this critical instance."
On Dec. 22, 2008 over a billion pounds of coal ash sludge from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Power Plant burst through a dam near Harriman, Tenn. and swamped houses, filled rivers and covered 300 acres of land. There are 49 sites deemed "high-hazard" by the EPA and a hundred waste ponds larger than the pond that failed in Tennessee -- in other words, the threat to human health and the environment from unsafe coal ash disposal needs immediate attention. Here are several other instances of coal ash contamination:
- In April 2000 residents in Town of Pines, Indiana noticed their drinking water tasted unusual. Their wells had been contaminated over the years by coal ash generated by a power plant owned and operated by Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO).
- In November 2007, Gambrills, Maryland residents settled for $54 million from Constellation Energy over contamination of their drinking water from billions of tons of coal ash into an unlined gravel quarry.
- In March 2009, 400 residents filed a lawsuit against Virginia Dominion Power seeking $1 billion in damages for contaminating local drinking water supplies with coal ash used as fill in the construction of the Battlefield Golf Club.