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April 11, 2013

Coal Ash Bill Fails to Protect Public Health

Coal slurry
A coal ash/slurry impoundment at a mountaintop removal coal mine in West Virginia.

Today, Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel at Earthjustice, stood up for the 1.54 million children living near coal ash waste sites who have an increased risk of being diagnosed with cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, and a host of other life-threatening illnesses. Evans gave voice to those who, through no fault of their own, jeopardize their health daily simply because of where they live.

Evans testified today (read her full testimony here) before the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment in the U.S. House of Representatives against a recently-introduced bill that fails to substantively protect children and vulnerable communities from exposure to hazardous chemicals in coal ash.

Lisa evansCoal ash is the toxic by-product that is left over after coal is burned for electricity. Right now, it is dumped into open-air pits and precarious surface waste ponds, contaminating drinking water supplies and polluting the air in communities across the country. Coal ash ponds and landfills are disproportionately located in low-income communities, with almost 70 percent of coal ash ponds in the U.S. in areas where household income is lower than the national median.

While health professionals and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have recognized for years that many of the hazardous substances found in coal ash are among the most deadly known to man, Evans' testimony shed light on the fact that coal ash is far more dangerous than previously understood. Using improved protocol, EPA found that some coal ashes leached toxic metals, such as arsenic, barium, chromium and selenium, at levels that far exceeded federal thresholds established for hazardous waste. Given this, it's no wonder that people living within one mile of unlined coal ash ponds can have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer - more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable.

Establishing means to properly and safely dispose of coal ash should clearly be a national priority - and yet, as Evans explained in her testimony before Congress today, the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2013 introduced by West Virginia Rep. David McKinley cannot and will not adequately protect American communities from the toxic pollution from coal ash. Among other things, the bill fails to establish a national protective standard for coal ash, meaning that state regulations would not necessarily be required to protect human health and the environment, and owners of coal ash disposal units do not need to obtain enforceable permits by any specified date. This absence of a deadline renders the bill nearly meaningless.

Today, Evans shed light on a toxic problem that is causing real pain to children and communities across the country. Congress should reject Rep. McKinley's inadequate coal ash bill and get to work on legislation that sufficiently protects public health, our drinking water, and our environment.

-- Ed Hopkins, Environmental Quality Program Director, Sierra Club

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