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April 15, 2011

Coal Ash Continues to Poison Americans

This week, some of them traveled to Washington to tell their stories.

Mike Eslinger lives near a coal ash waste dump in Sullivan, Indiana. On some days the wind gets the ash blowing around his house so much that he cannot let his two children play outside.

Curt Haven lives only 100 feet away from the Little Blue coal ash dump that spans parts of West Virginia and Ohio. He's had thyroid cancer and his wife has thyroid problems, as have many of their neighbors. Last year when the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection tested his water they found high levels of cadmium - a major contributor to thyroid disease.

Eslinger and Haven shared their stories with members of Congress this week during the Coal Ash Fly-In, as did more than 40 other activists from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia and Maryland who live near coal ash sites and are coping with health and environmental effects as well. They took time off of work and away from their families to share their stories with members of Congress and federal administrative offices of how coal ash affects them.

Coal ash is an abundant and dangerous by-product of burning coal for energy. Despite its hazardous contents, coal ash and other coal combustion wastes are not subject to federal safeguards - that's right, NO federal safeguards - and state laws governing coal combustion waste disposal are usually weak or non-existent.

Across the country, millions of tons of coal ash are being stored in precarious surface waste ponds, impoundments, unlined landfills, quarries, floodplains, and abandoned mines. (It's also a problem in India, check out our recent post on that problem).

The coal industry generates more than one hundred million tons of coal ash every year – the nation's second largest waste stream after household garbage – and it's full of harmful toxins like arsenic, lead and mercury. People living near some coal ash sites have a staggering 1 in 50 risk of cancer. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Academy of Sciences have years of research making it clear that coal ash is becoming an increasingly toxic threat to human health.

For Eslinger and Haven, sharing their stories was a chance to make sure people outside their communities know coal ash is a serious problem that needs a solution.

“I'd love that (the coal company) near me would just maintain the ash site properly, but they don't seem very interested in doing that,” said Eslinger. “We have a huge coal ash dust problem. We farm corn and soybeans and it gets covered in this filth.”

Haven is worried that the operators of the Little Blue coal ash site aren't being forthcoming with the threats to the surrounding communities.

"We have found out there are ten monitoring wells at Little Blue that have high levels of arsenic and no one told us about them - we only found that out after reviewing public documents," said Haven during his testimony yesterday morning in a House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy hearing on fossil fuel combustion waste

"We are only on earth one time," Haven told the committee. "Please help us keep it safe and make a better place to live for us and our grandchildren. We understand jobs are important - but no one should have to chose jobs OR health. We need and deserve both."

Coal ash is putting human health at risk both from potential large scale disasters like coal ash dam failures (like the notorious Tennessee Valley Authority disaster in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008) and from gradual, yet equally dangerous, contamination as coal ash toxins seep into drinking water sources.

EPA has long recognized the danger of coal ash and should act quickly to fulfill its duty to protect public health and the environment through strong federal regulations on coal ash. EPA proposed a draft rule last year, but it has stalled in issuing the final rule.

People like Eslinger and Haven came to Washington, DC, to say as much because it’s so important to them.

"This is my first time in DC; I'm a self-proclaimed hillbilly redneck," laughed Eslinger. "I've never done this because it’s hard for me to leave my two little girls and leave my farm. That's our sanctuary, but people are stomping on us. (This fly-in) brought people together from all over and I found that this problem is not unique to me. 

"This isn't just my problem, it's our problem."

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

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