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Coal ash pollution needs tighter regulation

August 5, 2014
Author: Lynn Ringenberg

Published in the Sun Sentinel, August 5, 2014.

A national epidemic has come to Florida. It is a silent threat, growing every day. Pollution contaminates our waters, poisons our fish and wildlife and increases our risk of cancer and other diseases.

The culprit is coal ash, and here in Florida we generate more than six million tons of this toxic waste every year, making our state seventh in the nation for coal ash generation. Even though it's full of dangerous contaminants, coal ash is even less regulated than our household garbage.

In February, a coal ash pond in North Carolina ruptured, sending 140,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River along the Virginia border. In 2008, a coal ash pond in Tennessee burst, sending more than one billion gallons of coal ash into the Clinch and Emory Rivers and damaging 40 nearby homes. While the coal ash problem in Florida isn't as obvious, it is still just as dangerous.

Coal ash is the waste left over when coal is burned for electricity. In 2007, power plants nationwide generated 140 million tons of this waste — enough to fill a line of train cars stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole. Many power plants simply dump their coal ash into unlined and unmonitored pits. There are no federal regulations ensuring safe disposal and handling of this waste, so coal ash can often contaminate nearby lakes, rivers, streams and drinking water aquifers with toxic pollutants. Across the country, coal ash has contaminated water at more than 200 sites.

Florida's most recent instance of contamination is along the Apalachicola River. On June 5, environmental groups sued Gulf Power Company for illegally discharging coal ash into the river at its Scholz Electric Generating Plant, a violation of the Clean Water Act. Water tests near the coal ash dumps found that arsenic levels coming out of the unlined pits were 300 times higher than federal safety standards. High levels of cadmium, chromium — well known carcinogens — as well as lead, selenium and mercury were also found.

Unfortunately, as coal plant pollution controls become more effective at trapping emissions and decreasing coal plant air pollution, the waste being dumped into coal ash waste streams is becoming more toxic.

Coal ash is a witch's brew of toxic heavy metals that poses significant health threats. These pollutants can cause cancer, damage organs, impair development in young children, cause heart and lung disease and a host of other dangerous ailments.

But coal ash threats aren't limited to water pollution. In a report released this month, titled "Ash In Lungs: How Breathing Coal Ash is Hazardous to Your Health," Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthjustice outline the danger of breathing coal ash dust. Increased asthma attacks and lung disease often result when the fine particle pollution of coal ash dust enters our bodies through the air we breathe. In numerous ways, coal ash continues to threaten our lives.

There is hope. Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthjustice, along with Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Environmental Integrity Project, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Montana Environmental Information Center, Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Western North Carolina Alliance, sued the EPA in federal court for its failure to follow the law and propose coal ash regulations in a timely manner. As a result of that lawsuit, the EPA will finalize a federal coal ash regulation by December 19, 2014. This will mark the first time the EPA has set such a standard, and we hope it is strong and protective of public health and the environment.

Until that rule is finalized, no federal protections for coal ash currently exist. Industry lobbyists are turning to some members of Congress to thwart the EPA's authority and pass legislation that will ban the EPA from ever regulating coal ash waste. Delay is victory for the polluters; the longer they can postpone any regulations, the longer Floridians will have to pay the price of more pollution into our air and water. There are simple solutions for this complex problem, but we need to institute them before it's too late. Florida should not be the site of the next coal ash disaster.

Lynn Ringenberg, M.D., is emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She is co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility Florida.

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