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We're already paying for coal contamination

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb on September 7, 2010


Something I said when I testified recently before the Environmental Protection Agency made the audience break into applause.

I was testifying for PSR on the need to adopt mandatory federal regulation of coal ash disposal.  Coal ash is the waste left over when coal is burned to generate electricity. 

Those wastes are leaking, leaching and spilling toxic substances from storage ponds, landfills and dumps into surface water and ground water around the country.

The EPA is considering adopting mandatory federal rules that would phase out leak- and spill-prone wet storage of coal ash, require storage areas to be lined, and take other steps to minimize toxic contamination of surface water, ground water, and in a number of places, drinking wells.  Some industries are vehemently opposed.


You’re not supposed to clap at an EPA hearing.  Speakers get three minutes to present their testimony, so it’s pretty much speak and get out of the way.  However, at times the audience (those waiting to testify and interested observers) take matters into their own hands. 

I guess I asked for it by adding an ad lib remark to my written testimony.  I had to.  I spoke after yet another industry spokesperson told the EPA it would hurt business if coal ash were labeled as a hazardous waste.

We’re talking here about a toxic mix laced with arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals.   Especially where there is prolonged exposure, the toxicants in coal ash can cause cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children, nervous system impacts, cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. 

So a hazardous label is not an unreasonable concept. 

The industries that use coal ash in their products – cement, wallboard, highway construction and others – complain that this regulation would burden them with “stigma.”  As in, “It would cause job losses in our industry if coal ash were to bear the stigma of being labeled hazardous.”

That pushed my button.  In my remarks, immediately after that speaker, I looked up from my prepared text and said, “If coal ash is going to bear a stigma, let it be the stigma of lives that are lost, not jobs.

The audience cheered.

We need to repeat that line more frequently -- and not because we like the acclaim.

We pay the price 

Increasingly, opponents of federal regulation of toxic substances argue that regulation would hurt industries, drive up costs, and lead to a loss of jobs.  That argument resonates at a time when many people struggle with unemployment, rising prices and financial insecurity.

We have to respond by telling the American public that we are already being forced to pay for coal contamination.   Our whole nation pays for coal ash leaks and leaching, and air pollution, and mountaintop removal, and toxic chemicals in our water, land and food. 

We pay when we purchase health care and health insurance.  When we lose days from work and school due to pollution.  When we suffer, physically, economically and emotionally, from illnesses and deaths.

So let’s not let polluting industries get away with saying that regulation of toxics is bad for the economy.  Toxic pollution is bad for the economy --  and bad for our health and our families.

Tell the EPA

We need you to tell this to the EPA. 

Get more information from PSR’s factsheets on coal ash disposal and the health effects of the worst toxicants in coal ash

Then, tell the EPA that we need protection from coal ash contaminants.  It’s easy:  Click to see how to send your comments via email to the EPA. 

We have a rare opportunity to stop coal ash from poisoning our waters.  Don’t let the opportunity slip by – it won’t come again any time soon.  Take action now.


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