Coal ash contains numerous poisonous chemicals, including arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium, and aluminum. So why are some members of Congress wanting to block action from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson that would protect people from toxic coal ash?

It’s true – 139 House members and 36 Senators either signed onto letters asking as much, or wrote their own letters (links to the letters are farther down in this post). What’s worse is that the letters are full of misleading information and inaccuracies about the public health risks of coal ash.

Coal-fired power plants produce approximately 150 million tons of waste per year, making coal combustion waste the second largest industrial waste stream in the U.S. When coal ash comes into contact with water, toxic heavy metals can leach out of the waste and contaminate groundwater and surface water.

One of the House letters to Administrator Jackson refers to an EPA document from 2000 that supposedly concludes that coal ash does not warrant regulation as a hazardous waste – but in reality that document says,

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After careful review of the present disposal of these wastes, we believe these additional measures are needed to ensure that public health and the environment are fully protected. If the states and industry do not take steps to address these wastes adequately in a reasonable amount of time or if EPA identifies additional risks to public health, EPA will revisit this decision to determine whether a hazardous approach is needed.

Consider these facts: There are more than 2,000 coal ash storage sites across the U.S. and dozens of documented cases where coal ash has contaminated surface water or groundwater in at least 23 states. (U.S. EPA, Coal Combustion Waste Damage Case Assessments, July 9, 2007.)

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And the latest EPA test results released in December 2009 show that the heavy metals seep out of coal ash at much higher rates than previously understood, poisoning water with arsenic and selenium at levels hundreds of times greater than the federal drinking water standards. Clearly, EPA is right in proposing stringent protections for toxic coal ash.

The House letter also claims that “states have effectively been regulating” coal ash – but in reality state laws governing coal combustion waste disposal are usually weak or non-existent, as exemplified in the growing cases of water contamination putting communities at risk across the country.

Further, both the House and Senate letters advance faulty claims that stringent federal safeguards for coal ash would stigmatize the coal ash recycling industry (coal is often recycled into concrete, bricks, etc…), with the Senate letter claiming even the proposed idea of this type of regulation has caused a downturn in the market. What these letters choose to ignore is that EPA’s proposals would completely exempt coal ash that’s encapsulated from water and safely recycled into construction materials.

Even the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) said there would be no stigma. From one news report:

EPA noted a U.S. Green Building Council representative’s affirmation that Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design incentives would remain for fly ash in concrete even under a broader (coal combustion residual) hazardous waste classification. If USGBC and EPA continue to recognize fly ash as an environmentally beneficial portland cement substitute, the proposed rule states,

“The use of this material is unlikely to decrease solely because of ‘stigma’ concerns. We believe it is unlikely (the American Society for Testing and Materials) will prohibit the use of fly ash in concrete under its standards solely because of a determination that fly ash is regulated under subtitle C of (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act), especially given that [such usage] is accepted [worldwide] as a practice that improves the performance of concrete. It is one of the most cost-effective, near-term strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and, there is no evidence of meaningful risk–nor any reason to think there might be–involved with its use in cement or concrete.”

The list of inaccuracies in these letters goes on. We encourage you to read the letters (PDF) – House Letter 1House Letter 2House Letter 3Senate Letter 1Senate Letter 2.

See if your representative or senator signed on. If s/he did, call them right now and tell them to withdraw their signature. If s/he did not sign on, call them to say thanks and to continue working for strong coal ash safeguards.

We need strong, federally enforceable safeguards for coal ash. Research from government and private scientists over the years shows an increasing concern for public health if exposed to coal ash’s toxins. Some studies have shown that these coal ash dumps are so toxic that they can increase nearby residents’ cancer risk to as high as a staggering 1 in 50.

Call your reps right now.