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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Where is the Coal Ash Rule? When we learn nothing from disasters, disastrous consequences await

Posted on March 2, 2012

By Lisa Evans

This essay is in response to: How toxic is coal ash, the waste material left after coal is burned? How does it come to poison the waters and dust the land in communities across the nation? And what can be done to prevent further toxic contamination?

When the massive spill of coal ash from TVA’s power plant in Kingston, Tennessee, made national news in December, 2008, millions of Americans saw images of devastation. A beautiful riverside community was turned overnight into a nightmarish landscape of toxic sludge as 300 acres of water and shoreline were inundated with over one billion gallons of coal ash. It took an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented proportions—the spill was five times the size of the BP oil spill—to focus public attention on the toxic tail end of coal burning.

The 2008 Kingston spill in Tennessee inundated a riverside community with toxic coal ash. Photo: United Mountain Defense

But the public’s attention span is short, and three years after the Tennessee spill, this issue is largely off the front page. Yet toxic ash remains in the air and water of hundreds of communities. Nearly 700 coal ash ponds, some even larger than the mammoth impoundment that collapsed in 2008, still threaten communities across the US. A spill in October, 2011, of 25,000 tons of coal ash on the banks of Lake Michigan briefly recaptured the attention of decision-makers. But we are still waiting for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a coal ash rule. 

While the nation waits for a solution, the problem grows more urgent. Ironically, deploying better pollution control technology at power plant smokestacks is making the nation’s coal ash problem worse. In January, 2012, the EPA established the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) to better control hazardous air pollutants released from power plants. The rule requires plants to remove mercury and other heavy metals from stack gases and capture the pollutants in ash and sludge. Yet in the absence of new federal regulations for managing more toxic waste, the MATS rule threatens to transfer the problem from our air to our water. Because there are no national disposal standards specifically addressing ash, the increasingly toxic waste will continue to be dumped unsafely—in unlined mines, landfills, pits and ponds—in nearly every state in the county. 

Clearly a strong national rule is the solution. Lobbying by powerful electric utilities easily holds state legislatures hostage to guaranteeing the cheapest, and often most hazardous, disposal practices. For decades most states have been unwilling to impose reasonable restrictions on coal ash dumping. These states will not change their laws without nationally mandated standards. While harm to human health and the environment can be minimized by coal ash disposal in engineered landfills, states do not impose the full suite of basic requirements, such as composite liners, solid waste disposal permits, disposal above the water table, and groundwater monitoring. Without a national rule, there will continue to be a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color, as well as on the residents of those states that burn the most coal.

Where exactly are the new regulations that were promised by Administrator Lisa Jackson in the wake of the Tennessee disaster? It’s been nearly two years since the EPA proposed two options for federal regulation of coal ash. While we wait, the damage mounts and the clock ticks until the next inevitable spill.

Yet from the beginning, the EPA has had the authority to issue a strong national rule, and it must do so immediately. Clearly a rule issued under the authority of subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, as the EPA proposed in June 2010, offers the most protection. Whatever rule is issued by the EPA, it must, at minimum, ensure: (1) the phase-out of coal ash ponds as soon as possible; (2) effective monitoring of all coal ash dumps, including long-term groundwater monitoring; (3) timely cleanup of releases from leaking sites; (4) modern engineering standards including for containment, leachate collection, and monitoring for all new coal ash landfills; (5) effective enforcement of standards; and (6) meaningful and robust opportunities for public participation in siting and expansions.

While rulemaking in an election year undoubtedly gives the Obama administration pause, leaks, spills, and disasters are immune to political cycles. Another costly—and potentially deadly—disaster is inevitable if the status quo continues. Furthermore, if the Obama administration fails to act, Congress may fill the void, as many representatives and senators are dead set on preventing the EPA from placing further limits, however life-saving, on the operations of the coal and utility industries. The House passed a bill last fall (H.R. 2273) which removes the EPA’s authority over coal ash, and an identical bill (S.1751) is pending in the Senate. The bill allows unlined coal ash ponds, like the one that collapsed in Tennessee, to operate indefinitely and guarantees that weak state programs continue to be the law of the land, largely immune from EPA oversight.

In light of the EPA’s indefinite delay in issuing a coal ash rule and Congress’ threat to eviscerate that authority, the environmental and public health community have taken bold action. Earthjustice, on behalf of eleven public health and environmental organizations, including Physicians for Social Responsibility, have put the EPA on notice that it will file a suit in federal court for a firm deadline for completing the seemingly endless review of coal ash regulations. We will file this lawsuit later this month.

Absent a horrific incident like the Kingston spill, coal ash may be out of the news, but it is not out of our air, our water, and our bodies. We can no longer allow the EPA to ignore its dangers at our peril.

PSR invites concerned readers to sign our petition urging President Obama to direct the EPA to issue strong coal ash protections.


Crawford Baird said ..

I am from Northern Ireland, age 46, married to Wendy and we have an 8 year old daughter Lucy. I was medically retired on the 26th of Ocyober 2010, the reason, PFA. I was managing a concrete plant and next thing I knew the company began work on their cement factory resulting in them purchasing their production loss from a competitor until the work was finished on their factory. This competitor, Quinn Cement, hauls PFA from Kilroot Power Plant and blends it into his cement produced in his Derrylinn cement factory. By the end of the first day, 3 of us employed in the concrete plant, myself and the 2 truck mixer drivers were all affected with dry nasal passage, eyes, mouth, airways and could feel it deep in our chests. 3 days later a colleague from the quarry our plant was based in, came into our office to complain that it had burned the paint and the glass of his 3 month old Audi A3. The detriments didn't stop there. Today I am laid up 24/7 and not fit to do very much for myself at all. Wendy and Lucy have been affected hence my using the family car to travel to work, Wendy washing my clothes and stupidly getting our back yard concreted with it. For a good while after that all the floors in the house were getting white daily as I had to give it enough time to dry out properly before sealing it. I asked the management to remove it from the plant and was told these decisions are made in the offices of CRH in Dublin and you will just have to work with it. I asked for a suppression unit for the plant and it was fitted 11 months later. 3 months after it was changed back I developed pneumonia and a CT scan revealed an Interstitial Lung Disease with several nodules in both lungs, Diverticulosis of my bowel which I believe are acid burns, burned corneas, skin, oesophagus, gastrointestines, stomach, bladder, prostate problems, fliud in all 4 limbs I can leave a one inch deep indentation in which is probably cor pulmonale and my gums were all burned away leaving the roots of all of my teeth exposed. Today I have read about you good people and my heart is sad for all of you. For me at least I am having no more exposure however I feel it will get me in the end. My Dad worked for 28 years in the same job as I had held there with Northstone N I LTD, and he passed away on the 30th of November 2009 after a 2 year battle with prostate and lung cancer. His friend who delivered the cement in tankers to his plant, went the same way. The 911 atrocities will claim more lives eventually through disease than the event did on the day and the largest offender was found to be Pulverised Concrete Dust. Governments need to take a stand on this big issue. My views on this are very strong as a campaigner currently pushing very hard for a legal case for compensation due to having my life ruined and now needing full time care. I would be inclined to look to the world's most powerful figure and spell it out to him that every life lost to this is one he chose not to save and that Judgement Day is one Appointment that he will not be able to cancel. I told you I had very strong views and I do. I will not be the judge of others however I will say to you President Obama, Ash from coal kills people and you must act now. I already wrote to David Cameron about this and told him about the criminals who were running the Northern Ireland Government were not doing for the people what they are voted into power for, to work for the people, not against them. I call upon David Cameron and Barack Obama to stop this and stop it now. I am living proof of what PFA can do to a human being and I say to you intelliGENTlemen ACT NOW.

August 11, 2012

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