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November 14, 2012

Coal Ash Dumps Threaten Our Health

CoalAshKinsingtonCoal ash is a general term for the toxic waste produced by coal-fired power plants, and contains multiple toxins and pollutants including arsenic and lead. Ultimately, the ash has to be stored in either dry or wet forms, both of which come with unique hazards. While we have known the dangers posed by coal ash dumps and storage for decades, toxic coal ash currently has no federal regulations and state laws governing its disposal are usually weak or non-existent.

Yesterday, the League of Conservation Voters hosted a briefing on the topic at the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Each speaker, including Randy Ellis, Republican Commissioner for Roane County in Tennessee, expressed a strong belief in the need for more oversight and stronger public health protections for this dangerous sludge that often finds its way into our drinking water and our air.

Four decades ago in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, 125 people were killed and thousands were left homeless when the Pittston Coal Company’s coal slurry impoundment dam failed and flooded the nearby community with toxic sludge. Since then, standards for coal slurry have mitigated such events, but that set of regulations does not apply to coal ash dams that often have comparable failings.

In 2008, a similar event occurred in Tennessee when the Kingston Fossil Plant ash dike ruptured, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of toxic ash into the community and surrounding waterways and lands.

Forty-seven coal ash dams in the U.S. have been declared “high risk” -- meaning if the impoundments holding the waste break, people would likely be seriously endangered or even killed. 

William Anderson of the Moapa Band of Paiutes in southeastern Nevada spoke about the terrible damage coal ash waste ponds have done to his community - Anderson was recently featured in the Sierra Club’s Cost of Coal photography and video campaign.

Credit: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures

Anderson’s moment behind the microphone moved me deeply as he described the premature deaths of his elders, the children in his community who are forced to use respirators, and the coal company’s refusal to address the community’s concerns. And yet his reservation is the first to launch an industrial-grade solar plant in an attempt to prove that jobs and energy can come from clean sources instead of the dirty ones wreaking havoc in his community.

The actions taken by the Moapa Band of Paiutes are exemplary of the response required by our national community. We need to bathe these injustices in light and then combat them with viable clean energy alternatives. When people see that they can create energy and jobs without dirty and dangerous by-products of dirty fossil fuel production, the potential for clean energy expansion becomes enormous. We have to believe in the potential of new possibilities and fresh perspectives so that we never give up the fight to leave our children with a cleaner world than we received.

--Kaylinda Mabry, Sierra Club Media Team Intern


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