Four years ago, a small Tennessee town woke up to a nightmare. A nearby coal ash pond that held back more than a billion gallons of toxic waste collapsed, sending a flood of ash and dirt right through their doors. In the weeks and months that followed, an entire nation began to see the magnitude of the coal ash threat.
Cleaning up the Clinch River near Kingston, TN, continues. Just last week, the Tennessee Valley Authority—the owners of the coal ash dam that burst—announced plans to let nature take its course in removing the remaining half a million tons of ash. Coal ash activist, Watauga Riverkeeper and Earthjustice client Donna Lisenby summed it up best: "Five hundred cubic yards is enough coal ash to fill a football field almost 94 feet high from end zone to end zone. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, chromium and many other toxic pollutants. Leaving that much ash in the river system to combine with all the other legacy pollutants just increases the total pollutant load."
The Tennessee spill opened our eyes to a growing problem. There are nearly 200 coal ash dumps that already pollute nearby rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers with arsenic, lead, selenium and other dangerous chemicals. There are hundreds more where no monitoring is occurring. According to the EPA, at over 50 coal ash sites across the country a catastrophic failure of the dam would result in the deaths of nearby residents. Coal ash has been contaminating our lives, and the problem is getting worse.
The EPA proposed a plan to set federally enforceable safeguards in 2010; since then, nothing has happened. But some members of Congress have been busy, not working to protect Americans but rather to allow the power companies responsible for these poisons to continue polluting our waters and air. Take 180 seconds to see what we’re up against:
The U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would prevent the EPA from ever setting federal coal ash protections. The bill would create a dangerous public health loophole by not phasing out the same kinds of coal ash ponds like the one in Tennessee. It would put no deadlines to set state permitting programs to clean up coal ash sites and doesn’t include any meaningful guarantee for public participation in decisions affecting their health.
The looming fiscal cliff requires Congress to act. The worst thing they could do would be to attach the pending coal ash bill as a “rider” on must-pass legislation, adding a coal industry giveaway to an unrelated piece of must-pass legislation. We met with Senate staff this week, bringing experts and affected citizens to Washington to talk to their elected officials and tell them the real story behind coal ash: poisoned rivers, polluted skies, cancer, asthma and even death. Inaction is taking its toll, and Congress and the EPA need to stop delaying the protections that these communities need and deserve.