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Letter to President Obama on Coal Ash

April 27, 2012

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Dear President Obama,

We the undersigned write as doctors of medicine, health scientists, and other health professionals to voice our alarm over the threats to health posed by improper coal ash disposal.  We call on you to release health-protective, enforceable national standards this year that will protect the American people and our environment from the hazards associated with coal ash.

Coal ash, the solid waste that remains after coal is combusted, constitutes the second-largest industrial waste stream in the United States, second only to mine wastes.  It contains concentrated amounts of some of the world’s deadliest toxic metals.  Yet there are no federal standards regulating disposal of this waste.   In many states, requirements for coal ash disposal are so weak that toxic contaminants leak, leach, spill or blow into the surrounding soil, surface waters, groundwater and/or air.  The hazards to health from exposure to these coal ash contaminants – typically including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium – are grave: 

  • Chronic exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause cancers of the skin, bladder, lung and kidney.  Exposure to lower levels can cause decreased production of blood cells, cardiovascular effects, and damage to the peripheral nervous system.
  • Lead, a potent neurotoxicant, can contribute to developmental delays, decreased intelligence, behavioral problems, kidney disease and death.
  • Mercury, another neurotoxicant, is particularly harmful to the developing nervous system and can cause developmental delays, reduced IQ and mental retardation, and behavioral problems.
  • Cadmium, if chronically inhaled, can result in kidney disease and obstructive lung diseases, and recent studies indicate developmental effects on children.
  • Chromium in its hexavalent form, if ingested via contaminated water, can cause anemia and stomach cancer.  Inhaled, chromium can cause lung cancer, breathing problems and nose ulcers.
  • Excess intake of selenium, which can be absorbed by grasses, grains and animals, can cause impaired vision, neurological problems, paralysis and death.
  • Children are the most vulnerable as their organs, especially the brain, are still developing and their exposure is greater as they eat more, breathe more, and drink more per unit of body weight than adults.

In the absence of minimum federal standards, coal ash disposal is often inadequate to contain these toxic wastes.  Many states allow the ash to be dumped in large unlined reservoirs where coal ash mixed with water is retained by nothing more than an earthen dam; in unlined landfills, mines and quarries; and in dry, uncovered mounds from which ash blows into adjacent communities.  Catastrophic accidents have already occurred, most notably the Harriman, TN coal ash disaster of December 2008, where the earthen impoundment gave way, flooding the adjacent river valley with over 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge.  Cleanup has been ongoing for over three years, and the cost is projected at over $1 billion.  As these ponds age and fall into disrepair, there is potential for more catastrophic failures.  In more than 50 locations, if a similar break occurred, it would be expected to result in the loss of life.

In addition to sudden, disastrous releases, coal ash contamination takes place through slow, less visible means such as leaching into underground water supplies.  When toxic materials in coal ash dissolve in water, they percolate through the earth and can endanger public health and the environment by contaminating water used for drinking supplies. 

The harm from coal ash is real, not theoretical.  In 34 states, coal ash has contaminated streams, lakes and rivers, underwater aquifers and drinking-water wells, inflicting harm on fish, wildlife and humans. The US Environmental Protection Agency and public interest organizations have identified 157 coal ash “damage cases” where “danger to human health or the environment has been proved.”

Coal ash’s threat to health is serious and is growing worse.  As clean air standards improve to require that scrubbers and other technologies remove more pollutants from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, those contaminants are transferred to the coal ash, increasing both its volume and its toxicity.  Cleaning up the air pollution only to shift the dangerous pollution to another type of waste is short-sighted; thus, it becomes ever more important to deal effectively with this dangerous and accumulating toxic waste.

Mr. President, we call on you and the Environmental Protection Agency to release health-protective standards for coal ash disposal this year.  Such standards should be nationwide and enforceable.  America’s health requires no less.

Sincerely,

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