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February 26, 2010

Coal Ash Stories Highlight the Problems

This is the weekly blog post from Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign. This post was co-written by Lyndsay Moseley, Associate Washington Representative for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.

This week we had the privilege to listen in on a White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) conference call with citizen groups from across the country to share the concerns and priorities of citizens around the country who are directly impacted by coal ash disposal problems.

Coal ash is the by-product of burning coal for power, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), working with the OMB, is preparing to draft new proposed rules to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash – hence this conference call.

On the calls, local spokespersons from 16 states delivered powerful stories of how their lives have been impacted by improper coal ash handling, and compelling messages on the importance of mandatory federal safeguards for coal ash

We listened as residents from Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Montana, New Mexico, Maryland, Virginia and many other states spoke about water contamination, the questionable reuse of coal ash to fill in mines, and more.

One southeast Ohio resident spoke of residents near her getting sick from the coal ash contamination. "Environmental justice and the human cost really have to be taken into consideration with this," said Elisa Young of Meigs Citizens Action Now, noting that the southeast Ohio area is very poor and Meigs County has no hospital despite having the highest rate of asthma in the state.
"The coal industry is dumping coal ash on us in so many ways, all with no regulation on how it affects us cumulatively," added Young. "They even dump it on the roads in the wintertime, which all runs off the road into the streams and groundwater."

Another resident who lives near a coal ash site by the New River in Virginia said he was tired of seeing ash from the unlined site in a 100-year-flood plain leech into the river and threaten the drinking water sources of communities down-river. "Our water table is being devastated," he said.

Other residents spoke of their battles to keep proposed coal ash sites from being placed near them. The stories went on and on, and all were heart-wrenching. Overall, their most common phrase to the government leaders on the call was, "We need help." These community activists want federal safeguards to protect them from the toxins in coal ash.

The staff of OMB, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and EPA were quite receptive during the calls, taking notes as they listened. After the meeting, one OMB staffer commented that that they don't often hear local stories such as these.

Coal ash contains arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium, and aluminum, and most coal ash is stored near coal-fired power plants in waste ponds near communities and waterways. The toxic materials leach out of the waste and contaminate groundwater and surface water.

There are hundreds of coal ash storage sites across the U.S. We've already seen one major coal ash disaster – December 2008's devastating Tennessee Valley Authority spill in Roane County, Tenn. The conference call included residents from near the spill, who spoke of the remaining devastation and toxins and how they do not want that kind of tragedy to happen anywhere else.

We need consistent mandatory federal safeguards to prevent future coal ash disasters - safeguards that will protect the environment and our communities from toxic leaching and flooding. Yet the coal industry continues fighting for special treatment to keep them from cleaning up their dirty business. Coal use from cradle to the grave is dirty, dangerous, and damaging, and but the coal industry continues spending millions on lobbying to retain and create more loopholes for themselves.

This much is clear - coal must be cleaned up and the industry will not clean itself. We must speak out in favor of stronger regulations and encourage EPA to quickly implement real safeguards to protect our communities from coal ash.

Take action today for coal ash safeguards.


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