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February 11, 2014

Enough Is Enough: Coal Pollution Spills Reveal a Water Safety Crisis

Epa coal ashWhen it comes to rivers and clean, safe water, you don't know what you've got until it's gone. Hundreds of thousands of people have learned that the hard way over recent weeks, after a dangerous coal chemical spilled into the Elk River in West Virginia's capitol city, and then toxic coal ash from a retired Duke Energy power plant spilled into North Carolina's Dan River (and now there's another coal slurry spill in WV).

In the wake of these disasters, frightened  families have been faced with a sobering reality -– the state agencies they were counting on to keep their water safe have actually had their hands tied behind their backs for years, thanks to decades of pressure from the coal industry.

Chaos, fear, and uncertainty -- that's all the people affected by the chemical spill in West Virginia and the coal ash spill in North Carolina have come to expect from their leaders in the wake of these disasters. It's simply unacceptable.

Yesterday in Charleston, West Virginia, the House subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a field hearing on the spill, just a day after WV Senator Jay Rockefeller said he still had no faith in the safety of water for more than 300,000 West Virginians, stating:

"(E)ven if some expert group told me it was safe I don't think I'd believe it," he told ABC affiliate station WCHS-TV Friday, adding "They can say it's not hazardous or this or that, but it doesn't mean anything."

And the senator gets very specific on who is to blame for his skepticism:

"It just gets into the degree of control that corporations have over people," he said. "They dominate in West Virginia's life. Governors get elected -- and I was a governor once -- and they appoint people to regulatory jobs who helped them in campaigns. What does that tell you?"

This comes just days after physicians in West Virginia reinforced a recommendation for children and pregnant women to avoid drinking the water -- over one month after the spill. It's gotten so bad in West Virginia that, as the New York Times reports, a key selling point for restaurants is that they only use bottled water for cooking.

Sadly, corporate control over the safety of our water isn't just a problem for those of us in West Virginia. In North Carolina, Duke Energy finally announced yesterday that it had stopped the flow of toxic coal ash from a retired coal plant, after a week-long spill that dumped 82,000 tons of arsenic containing toxic coal ash into the Dan River.

An Associated Press investigation yesterday revealed that the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has actually been shielding Duke from citizen lawsuits by intervening at the last minute after citizen's groups have filed suit, ensuring that Duke pays exceptionally small fines while doing nothing to clean up toxic coal ash ponds. Rachel Maddow broke this down brilliantly on her show last night, and also interviewed Amy Adams, a former state environmental regulator who resigned in protest after being asked to give polluters a free pass. She is now on the staff of Appalachian Voices, where I used to work as executive director.

Thanks to an investigation by our allies at the Waterkeeper Alliance, the DENR is telling residents along the Dan River to "avoid prolonged direct contact" with water from the river as levels of the toxic metal arsenic are at some points more than four times higher than levels deemed safe for human contact. This warning comes days after the same agency said the water was safe -- eerily similar to the way events unfolded in West Virginia.

The response of state and federal agencies to both of these crises is unacceptable. It took the EPA nearly a month to respond publicly to the water crisis in West Virginia, and in North Carolina, the DENR only admitted to dangerous levels of arsenic in the river after concerned citizens did testing of their own.

Enough is enough. It has been five years since the disastrous Kingston coal ash spill dumped more than a billion gallons of the toxic sludge, and the EPA is still sitting on a draft rule that could have prevented the North Carolina spill, had it finalized a strong version of the rule. The agency is also in the midst of drafting rules to finally set limits for toxic water pollution from power plants, but the coal industry has tried to put the screws on the agency and the White House to ensure that the final rule has no teeth.

From corporate mishandling to federal inaction, the depressing fact is that those under the gun from coal pollution still don't have much recourse to protect their homes, their safety, or their water.

Many more coal pollution time bombs are ticking on our waterways nationwide, and states are clearly not able to prevent these disasters, nor to respond in time. Now is the time for the EPA to act. It's time to ensure that everyone has the security to expect clean water free from the threat of pollution from coal in any of its forms.

- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director

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