Late Wednesday we saw a victory for clean water and public health: The Sierra Club is pleased to be a part of a legal agreement with 11 organizations compelling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to finalize safeguards against coal ash pollution by the end of this year. EPA first proposed these standards in 2010, and they have been mired in red tape ever since. If the final protections are strong, getting them over the finish line will be a major victory for public health, safe communities, and clean water.
Coal ash is the toxic by-product left over when coal is burned for electricity. It’s a dangerous mix of lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium and many other harmful metals and pollutants. When coal ash comes in contact with water, a soup of hazardous pollutants can leach out of the waste and poison our water. Every year, the nation’s coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution — and those tons of toxic material are stored in unlined ponds and uncovered piles nationwide.
The communities living in the shadows of power plants have been living with this dangerous pollution for decades. As I mentioned in my column last week – just look at Charlotte, N.C., where Duke Energy’s coal ash has contaminated the lake that provides drinking water for the 750,000 residents in the area. In the wake of the West Virginia coal chemical spill earlier this year, it’s more clear than ever that we must close all the water pollution loopholes that the coal industry has enjoyed for far too long. This coal ash standard is a big one.
But the pollution doesn’t stop with the water – coal ash also dirties the air. Just ask the Moapa Band of Paiutes living next to the Reid Gardner coal plant in Nevada, who joined this suit, or the residents living near the Louisville Gas & Electric Cane Run Power Plant, where coal ash has caused “persistent” air quality and health issues for years now.
The unlined ponds are also a major threat to nearby communities because of the risk of dam failures. We saw that in the 2008 TVA coal ash disaster in Roane County, Tennessee, when one billion gallons of coal ash spilled into a beautiful riverside community. The vast majority of states do not require adequate monitoring or liners to stop the release of toxic chemicals nor do they ensure that massive earthen dams are maintained safely to prevent another disaster like the 2008 coal ash spill.
This is alarming, considering that there are at least 50 high hazard coal ash dams throughout the U.S.
Despite coal ash being so toxic, it’s less regulated than your household garbage. Unfortunately, since the 2008 Tennessee spill, the coal industry has lobbied hard to block the EPA from establishing strong protections. For the polluters, all that matters is keeping operating costs as low as possible. The costs to society of the misery and disease their pollution causes are no concern of theirs.
While the EPA has thoroughly documented the dangers of coal ash and the public has been outspoken asking for protections — Americans have sent more than 450,000 comments asking, and turned out by the hundreds to five public hearings — the EPA has failed to set federal limits on the pollution. Our settlement requires EPA to protect these communities with federal action by the end of this year.
So today we celebrate this move in the right direction for clean air and water and our health.
We will continue to working with affected communities to push the administration to ensure that the EPA finalizes a standard that is strong, federally enforceable, and truly protects communities living near these dangerous sites.