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PSR Signals Intention to Sue U.S. EPA for Release of Coal Ash Rule

January 18, 2012

PSR, acting with environmental organizations, filed a Notice of Intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require the Agency to release rules for safe disposal of coal ash, the toxic waste left when electrical utilities burn coal.

The Notice of Intent, filed January 18, calls on the EPA to complete a “timely review” of its pending coal ash regulations, as required by law under the  Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.  The letter also asks EPA to review the outdated test it uses to determine the toxicity of coal ash constituents.

PSR spokesperson Maureen McCue, MD, PhD, president of the PSR Iowa chapter, told reporters that, a year and a half after she testified at an EPA coal ash hearing in 2010, “Nothing has happened since then except that these toxins continue to mount.  Our water and health continue to be threatened by the ongoing accumulation of these toxic materials.”

Because burning concentrates coal’s impurities, coal ash is heavily laden with some of the most dangerous toxic metals in the world, including arsenic, mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium and selenium.  These and other toxicants in coal ash are or can be carcinogenic and can damage the lungs, heart, peripheral nervous system, brain, intestines, liver and kidneys.

PSR has been and continues to be active on coal ash, filing written comments with the EPA, testifying at hearings, educating legislators, and producing resources including Coal Ash:  The Toxic Threat to Our Health and Environment (pdf). 

 “Regrettably, it has become necessary to challenge EPA for its failure to release coal ash safeguards in timely fashion,” stated Barbara Gottlieb, director of PSR’s Environment and Health program.  “EPA’s inaction places hundreds of communities at great risk.”

With coal-burning utilities producing 140 million tons of coal ash every year, the ash constitutes an enormous waste stream.   It is typically disposed in “ponds,” sometimes the size of small lakes, which frequently are unlined and may be held back by earthen walls.  Breaks in these walls, accidental spills, and leaching of toxic elements has led to widespread contamination of groundwater and surface water. 

In December 2008, the collapse of the coal ash impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant, which flooded 300 acres of a riverfront community with 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge.  This disaster destroyed the local community, resulted in a multi-year cleanup estimated to cost more than $1.2 billion, and caused the permanent displacement of dozens of families.

In late October 2011, another significant spill occurred in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where an unregulated coal ash disposal site collapsed into Lake Michigan, inundating the lake and shoreline with 25,000 tons of coal ash. Regulations addressing coal ash disposal might have prevented such disasters and would certainly help to prevent future ones, the NOI notes.

The EPA has 60 days to reach an agreement with PSR and the other potential plaintiffs, which include Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, and local environmental groups from affected communities across the country.  If no out-of-court agreement is reached, the issue will move to litigation.

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