Haven't Heard of the Coal Ash Problem? You Will

Some background on a pollutant under scrutiny by the EPA

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You may not have known that coal ash was an urgent environmental issue, but it is. Recent spills of this coal-plant byproduct have prompted the EPA to conduct multi-city hearings on the problem. Environmental activists, in response, are plastering websites with testimonials as to how bad this toxic waste really is. Here, in case you haven't been following, is the case against coal ash:

  • Why Coal Ash Is a Problem  Completely aside from "coal power plants [being] by far the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in this country," writes Liz Butler at The Huffington Post, the coal ash they produce "contains toxic chemicals like arsenic, mercury and lead that can poison the water supplies of entire communities and are known to cause birth defects and premature deaths." She explains that environmental groups have been "urging citizens to demand tough action from the EPA on coal ash."
  • How It's Not Being Regulated: Tennessee Valley Authority Incident A New York Times editorial tells the story of "a gigantic storage pond" in Tennessee "burst[ing] at the seams" in December 2008, "spilling a billion gallons of mainly toxic coal ash from a T.V.A. power plant into surrounding lands and rivers. It was the perfect moment to right a long-festering environmental wrong," but new regulations "governing the disposal of coal ash" were not forthcoming. The Sierra Club's Bruce Nilles Alternet goes into the problem further at AlterNet:

While scientists and experts... have known for years that coal ash is full of harmful pollution that can cause cancer and other serious illnesses, the issue flew largely under the radar until the massive TVA disaster. Even now nobody, including the EPA, has a full picture of how much of this toxic waste is out there, where it is, or if it is staying put. The coal industry has dumped millions of tons of its toxic leftovers at thousands of sites across the country with no federal oversight, and utterly inadequate state policies. ... Toxic ash dump sites lacking even basic safety protections, drinking water sources poisoned and people unknowingly at risk. ...Many state agencies ... require no monitoring of waters near toxic coal ash sites.

  • The Story of One Regulation Failure  Sierra Club apprentice Jenny Kordick tells the story of another coal ash contamination case, this one in Colstrip, Montana. The Pennsylvania Power and Light company has long disposed of coal ash in "settling ponds" in the area, but "insufficient pond linings and poor construction techniques, in addition to lack of state environmental regulation," have meant that water resources have become contaminated. "The ranching community ... [was] assured by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality the ponds would not leak, and if they did, the power plants would be shut down." Not so.
  • The Proposals on the Table The New York Times editorial explains that "one proposal, favored by public-interest groups and by agency scientists, would replace a patchwork of uneven ... state regulations with new national standards." These standards "would formally designate coal ash as a hazardous waste under federal law, require industry to phase out porous sludge ponds, replace them with sturdy, leak-proof facilities, and take other protective steps." Another, "competing proposal would establish federal guidelines for disposal but leave enforcement to the states." The editorial board is for the first proposal: "By any measure, coal ash is a national problem demanding a national response."
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