Citizens’ Petitions for Protection from Toxic Contamination
October 3, 2012
As citizens of the United States, we all sleep better knowing that if our property or health is threatened by others, we can seek assistance from our government. However, sometimes local and state government can prove unresponsive to our concerns. In situations where contamination is documented and local and state agencies prove ineffective in addressing concerns, we can petition the federal government to assess the situation. If our petition is approved, the government will hire a contractor to quantify any contamination and identify potential sources and responsible parties.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accepts citizen’s petitions for preliminary assessments of properties that are known to be contaminated but need to be quantified. Anyone with evidence of contamination on their property and concerns for their personal safety and health because of possible exposure to harmful substances may request a preliminary assessment (PA). There are ten EPA regions so your petition will need to go to your specific region’s office. If the EPA agrees with your concerns, they will hire an environmental contractor to collect samples for analysis and will investigate potential sources of any contamination they may find. If the PA exposes contaminants whose levels and volume meet a specified Hazard Risk Score (HRS), the EPA will conduct a Full Site Inspection to clearly define any areas that may need to be cleaned up. The reports that the EPA generates may provide the evidence necessary to prompt a clean-up or to recover damages from the responsible party or source of contamination. The EPA’s scrutiny alone will often compel the responsible parties to clean up or even eliminate the source of the contamination.
The citizen petition process through the EPA may be the best route to pursue risks posed by exposure to coal ash in your neighborhood. Coal ash contains many toxic heavy metals that, if found in high enough concentrations, will rank for a clean-up. Due to the vast volumes of coal ash being generated, transported, stored and disposed of, around the clock and across the nation, right now and for decades in the past, multiple concerns exist. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s catastrophic dam failure in 2008 highlighted the need for better oversight and handling of coal ash wet-storage disposal ponds. In addition, many regions endure wind-blown coal ash reaching residential areas. In some states, coal ash is used as fill in residential areas and can pose risks to groundwater, soil, and air quality. Some states allow coal ash to be dumped and stored indefinitely with zero containment, allowing offsite migration through wind and stormwater. Coal ash may spill when transported, allowing it to spread even further. Some states still utilize coal ash for road traction in winter and even utilize intentional aerial dispersion on river ice to speed melting. All of these scenarios create more exposure pathways to toxic coal ash constituents.
Here in Alaska, we have worked closely with EPA Region 10 and have used the citizen’s petition process on numerous occasions to address contaminated sites (coal ash and other) with great success. Local and state agencies do not always have the funds and expertise to deal with these situations, but the EPA is fully prepared to step in under the right circumstances. They can be invaluable in identifying, explaining and promoting remediation of contamination risks. If you, too, have concerns with exposure to coal ash or other hazardous substances, consider filing a citizen’s petition. You will need to document your concerns and contact your regional EPA office. Don’t hesitate to do so. It is our health and our right to know.
EPA Region 10 Preliminary Assessment Citizens Petition information (You will need to submit to your EPA region.)