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PSR calls on EPA for Tougher Regulation of Toxic Coal Ash

September 3, 2010

PSR testified recently before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the health risks associated with coal ash, at the first of seven EPA hearings on disposal of this dangerous coal combustion waste product.

Barbara Gottlieb, deputy director of environment and health, and Alan Lockwood, MD FAAN, a member of the PSR board, outlined the dangers to health from toxicants that leach, leak and spill from coal ash disposal sites around the country.

Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, selenium and other deadly toxic metals that can cause cancer and neurological harm in humans and can kill and cause deformities in wildlife, especially fish and other water-dwelling species.

Toxicants have escaped from coal ash storage sites across the nation and contaminated above-ground and underground waterways and, in some cases, drinking-water wells, in over 100 documented instances. 

As Dr. Lockwood noted about arsenic, the most common coal ash toxicant, “Arsenic is a known carcinogen that causes cancers of the skin, lung, and urinary bladder. …Exposure to arsenic also increases the risk of developing Type II Diabetes Mellitus, a largely preventable, devastating, and expensive disease.”

PSR calls for federal regulation

The EPA has put forth two options for coal ash disposal, only one of which would require mandatory federal regulation.  PSR has strongly endorsed that option, known as “Subtitle C,” as the only alternative currently on the table that would adequately protect human health. 

Coal ash is currently regulated by the states, and their laws are frequently too weak to prevent unsafe dumping practices such as storing coal ash in gravel pits and quarries, unlined landfills, abandoned mines, and in enormous “ponds.”  When a coal ash pond in Tennessee burst in December 2008, it inundated a river valley with a billion gallons of toxic sludge. 

In the hearing, Gottlieb voiced PSR’s call for:

  • mandatory federal regulation of coal ash;
  • phase-out of wet storage, which poses too great a risk of leaching;  and
  • limiting the recycling of coal ash to uses where coal ash is not exposed to water, and where the ash is chemically bound to stable substances.  Unencapsulated uses and mine filling must end.

PSR urges all of its members to contact the EPA voicing their support for strong, federally enforceable safeguards that guarantee coal ash will not pollute our drinking water, rivers, streams, wildlife and communities.  The EPA is now accepting comments via email.  Consult PSR’s fact sheets on what coal ash is and why it is dangerous, health impacts of six of the worst toxicants in coal ash, and how to submit comments to the EPA.

In response to widespread expressions of concern over coal ash, the EPA also scheduled public hearings in Denver, Dallas, Charlotte, NC, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Louisville.  More information on those hearings, which will take place during September, is provided by the EPA.  PSR members in or near those cities are urged to sign up to testify in person at their local hearing.

PSR will release on Sept. 8 a detailed report on coal ash’s impacts on health.  Check back with our website then.

Public comments may be submitted to the EPA via email until Nov. 19.

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