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Jared Saylor's Blog

It was early October, but the trees were still a vibrant green. Fall had not yet arrived and winter was still a distant concern in Kingston, TN. Fishing boats and jet skis were tied to docks along the Clinch River, and even though it was a Thursday morning it was obvious that folks in this small community were already gearing up for weekend fun.

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.

It’s Groundhog Day in the House of Representatives. Once again, coal company allies are leading a charge to pass a symbolic vote that would reinforce their disdain for any plans to clean up coal ash ponds and landfills with federal minimum safeguards. But the symbolism has real-world impacts: nearly 200 coal ash sites have already contaminated nearby lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers with dangerous chemicals that cause cancer, organ damage and even death.

It seems reasonable that if something were to cause us harm, we’d like to know about it—such as a faulty part in a car that would cause the brakes to fail. It’s the way we protect ourselves and our families, by avoiding those things that might cause us harm, or at least being made aware of the risks. Seems logical enough, right?

It comes as no surprise: Americans overwhelmingly want clean air. We’re very pleased to see that our friends at the American Lung Association have concluded that 75 percent of American voters support the Environmental Protection Agency and their efforts to clean up smog pollution.

Shame on the Environmental Protection Agency. Yesterday afternoon, the agency decided that it would postpone indefinitely a new health standard finalized a few months ago that would reduce toxic air pollution from industrial boilers. These small power plants are used at larger industrial facilities like oil refineries and chemical plants—more than 13,000 of them are in operation across the country.

Alex Allred and her family are surrounded by cement. Not concrete, which is made from cement, but the big industrial facilities that crush and heat limestone to make cement. She lives in Midlothian, TX, an area known locally as “The Cement Capital of Texas,” a distinction that Alex and her family cannot appreciate. Her son eight-year-old son, Tommy, has asthma. His visits to the hospital emergency room are too numerous to remember. His asthma attacks hit him like a tank, unexpected and relentless.

We avoided a government shutdown with last minute deals that seemed to please both parties. But as they often say here in Washington, D.C. “the devil is in the details.” And in this case, it’s an awfully vicious budget slashing devil that has emerged in those details.

Today’s major announcement from the EPA to cut mercury and other toxic air pollution from hundreds of coal-fired power plants across the country was welcome news here at Earthjustice. For nearly 15 years, we’ve been fighting in the courts for cuts like these so that our communities and our children can breathe a little easier.

Dr. Margaret Palmer is a world renowned water biologist who works at the university of Maryland, but has a home in West Virginia and family from the Appalachia region. "Headwater streams are exponentially more important than their size would suggest," said Dr. Palmer in testimony before the Senate. She compared headwater streams to the small capillaries in our lungs that distribute the oxygen necessary for life to our bodies.

The saga of mountaintop removal continues, and this time it's headed to Congress. Two proposed bills—one in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives—could curtail mountaintop removal mining by banning certain activities related to this destructive mining practice.

Appalachia's mountains never seem to get a break. First, back in 2007, a district court judge ruled in favor of a lawsuit we brought on behalf of some West Virginia groups that stopped five mountaintop removal mining permits from going forward because of the permanent destruction they would have done to Appalachian streams and headwaters.

We've told you about the dangers of eating mercury-contaminated fish. Today, the US Geological Survey released a comprehensive study linking the mercury emissions from smokestacks here in the US and abroad, and the contamination of fish like tuna and other marine life in the Pacific Ocean. According to the NY Times and Greenwire:

The study documents the formation in the North Pacific of methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury that rapidly accumulates in the food chain to levels that can cause serious health concerns for people who consume seafood. Scientists have known for some time that mercury deposited from the atmosphere can be transformed into methylmercury, but the study focuses on how that transformation occurs.

USGS showed that methylmercury is produced in mid-depth ocean waters by processes linked to "ocean rain." Algae, which are produced in sunlit waters near the surface, die quickly and rain downward to greater water depths. The settling algae are decomposed by bacteria and the interaction of this decomposition process in the presence of mercury results in the formation of methylmercury.

Many steps up the food chain later, predators like tuna receive methylmercury from the fish they consume, the study shows.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, "This study gives us a better understanding of how dangerous levels of mercury move into our air, our water, and the food we eat, and shines new light on a major health threat to Americans and people all across the world."

Just last week, the EPA proposed significant cuts in cement kiln mercury emissions (up to 16,000 pounds a year), and we’re hopeful they will continue this leadership when they work to cut mercury from coal-fired power plants sometime in the future.

Mercury is a neurotoxin especially dangerous to young and unborn children, and women of childbearing age are often warned to limit their consumption of contaminated fish (like tuna, shark, walleye, or wild striped bass).

Question: When is dry cleaning actually dry?
Answer: Never. 

When you send your dry-clean-only clothes to the local dry cleaner (and believe me, I'm the first to admit I'm a stickler for nicely pressed shirts and pants) they use special machines and a toxic solvent called perchloroethylene to get your clothes clean.

In the final witness panel, Tom Kilgore, president and CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority, said that they have posted information on their website.

But as mentioned earlier by Harriman resident Sarah McCoin, many of the residents simply don’t have ready access to the internet and to TVA’s website. Much like if a tree falls in the forest one wonders if it makes a sound, if there is information available on health impacts that doesn’t actually get to the residents who are most affected, does it really serve to protect?

Today's congressional hearing on the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill from last December in Harriman, TN, started out with opening remarks from Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) who said that it’s been "nearly a decade" since this committee held oversight hearings on the Tennessee Valley Authority. She also said the committee maybe plans to continue TVA oversight now every 30 to 60 days.

Minority committee leader Rep. John Boozman from Arkansas said, "New laws will not replace homes…and family treasures," but bet they will certainly do much to make sure that others who live near these coal ash sites don't have to lose their homes or valuable family treasures and heirlooms in another preventable spill.

Rep. Lincoln Davis, whose district is where the TVA spill happened, offered strong words for the committee, saying, "My constituents and the land they live on must be made whole again."

The Republicans seem to be pushing their talking points aggressively: while this particular spill is bad, this doesn't mean coal is bad and there shouldn't be talk of stopping coal burning. It seems like they're not quite able to see the forest for the trees, and despite the nature of this hearing (to find out what went wrong and how it can be prevented) some members just can't resist a small shot at those groups fighting for a cleaner environment.

Sarah McCoin, a Harriman, TN, resident said: "Harriman is now a toxic wasteland, and we urge that guidelines and laws are in place to make sure that this never happens again... residents are scared if they are being exposed... we are a community that hunts fishes and swims in the rivers and we need to be ensured that it is safe to be in the river... Harriman is home to people who rely on the fish for their meals... too many residents are experiencing respiratory problems... we desperately need to have testing for our community to find out if our children are being poisoned…we have been neglected. There are people who have been satisfied but there are many are not."

Strong words from someone who is living in and near this tragedy. Committee is on a break now for a floor vote. More to come later.

The New York Times reports via Greenwire that the Obama administration is making some legal maneuvers that could mean they are reconsidering health standards for smog pollution set by the Bush administration back in 2007. Earthjustice and the 60,000 of you who participated in our Adopt the Sky campaign told Bush that his approach ignored science and the law, setting a standard that fell short of what scientists recommended were safe levels to protect public health.

I know, I know, big surprise that the Bush administration let politics trump science and set a standard that did a terrible job of protecting public health and the environment, but that's why we sued them in court!

The Obama administration asked the court to "stall proceedings" on our lawsuit challenging the weak Bush standard in order to "determine whether to revise the controversial Bush-era standards," according to the Times story. Of course, we remain optimistic that the current EPA will listen to the recommendations of science and set a standard protective of public health.

With a stroke of his pen today, President Obama endorsed a keystone element in Earthjustice's national push for energy efficiency.

Obama signed a presidential memorandum calling upon the Department of Energy to adopt energy efficiency standards for dozens of common household appliances. This marks a huge step towards the energy savings and independence he promised during the election, Obama said:

A few months ago, we told you about the Lafarge cement kiln in Ravena, NY giving itself an environmental award, despite being the largest mercury polluter in the state. Well, it looks like Lafarge may actually reduce mercury emissions according to new plans to update their plant. Construction, however, won't even start until 2013.

Unfortunately, Lafarge doesn't seem to be doing this to be a good neighbor; they claim the decision came from "a broad set of business considerations." We definitely encourage cleaning up this plant, but the proof is in the pudding. As our attorney Keri Powell said, we'll continue to "make sure the pollution controls they install will be sufficiently protective."

Stay tuned for more updates on this kiln and our work to clean up mercury pollution across the nation.

...by giving themselves an environmental award, of course! note that the Lafarge press release touting their environmental award came out, according to the article, 6 months after they received the award. during that time we held two press conferences pounding on Lafarge for their mercury pollution, and this Albany Times Union reporter did a great story about how that cement kiln is the biggest mercury polluter in the state.