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December 22, 2011

3rd Anniversary of the Coal Ash Disaster in Tennessee

TN coal ash photo - Credit Lyndsay MoseleyThree years ago this week, Americans saw one of the worst coal ash spills in Tennessee, when a billion gallons of toxic sludge poured onto farmland and into the Emory and Clinch rivers. In the disaster, Americans saw first-hand the consequences of delegating the job of handling coal ash to states, who lack the will and ability to protect communities. We thought it would be the final straw and that national safeguards to protect Americans from this hazardous material would surely follow.

Our nation's coal-fired power plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash every year, making it the second-largest industrial waste stream in the country.  Across the country, millions of tons of coal ash are being stored in unlined ponds, landfills and mines. Many of these sites lack adequate safeguards, leaving nearby communities at risk from potential large scale disasters, like the massive coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008, and from gradual yet equally dangerous contamination as coal ash toxins seep into drinking water sources. Despite its hazardous characteristics, coal ash is not subject to federal protections, and state laws governing coal ash disposal are usually weak or non-existent.

Coal ash, the by-product of burning coal, contains high levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium. The public health and environmental hazards from unsafe coal ash dumping have been known for many years, including increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma and other sickness.

But since the 2008 Tennessee disaster, the coal industry has lobbied hard to block the Environmental Protection Agency from establishing strong protections. The states, they say, are doing a fine job managing coal ash. In reality, the state laws governing disposal of coal ash are usually either weak or nonexistent.

There have been coal ash spills since the 2008 Tennessee disaster, too. Just this last November, toxic coal ash spilled into Lake Michigan, the drinking water source for millions of people.

Thankfully, there is hope.  The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed safeguards for coal ash which would phase out these surface impoundment "wet dumps" - the most dangerous ash disposal method - and put in place common-sense safeguards that protect human health and the environment by governing the disposal and recycling of dry coal ash.

EPA has said they will finalize their standards in 2012, but until then, every day we wait for federal protections, another tragedy like the one on Tennessee could happen.

- Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club Washington Representative. Photo of the 2008 Tennessee coal ash disaster by Lyndsay Moseley.

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