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August 08, 2014

Weeks, Months, and Years Later, Still No Coal Ash Safety Standards

Dan River coal ash spill - courtesy Appalachian VoicesThis week marks the six-month anniversary of the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina. In February 2014, a broken pipe released up to 82,000 gallons of toxic coal ash and wastewater into the Dan River. The cleanup still continues today as Duke Energy drags its feet.

But if you think that sort of coal ash water contamination happens only once in a blue moon, you'd be wrong. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, boron, and chlorine. Coal ash waste is stored in more than 1,400 sites in 45 states -- and just this week coal ash waste was found buried beneath a softball field at a middle school in Brunswick County, North Carolina.

From the article:

The source of the ash: Southport's Cogentrix coal-fired energy plant, which distributed the ash in the early 1990s.

"It wasn't documented, because back then it wasn't deemed hazardous waste," said Stephen Miley, Brunswick County Schools' director of operations.

Well guess what - coal ash still isn't deemed hazardous waste despite its toxic contents. For that matter, it isn't subject to any national protections at all! There simply aren't any federal standards to govern how to safely dispose of coal ash, to keep it out of our streams, rivers, lakes, and drinking water. That's right – no Environmental Protection Agency safeguards for toxic coal ash. And yet, according to the EPA, coal ash has already contaminated waters at 200 sites in 37 states across the country.

TVA Coal Ash Spill 2Every year, the nation's coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution, the second biggest waste stream in the country, after household garbage.

All that ash has to go somewhere, and because we don't have any federal standards to guide safe disposal, much of it is dumped in the backyards of power plants across the nation, into open-air pits and flimsy surface waste ponds -- and sometimes it ends up stashed under softball fields where kids play, or used in the construction of golf courses, or dumped into an old quarry. Monitoring these sites is left up to the states, and in the absence of federal standards, most states lack either the resources or the will to do the job.

Coal ash doesn't just pose a threat to water – it pollutes our air, too. Our friends at EarthJustice just released this new report entitled "Ash in Lungs: How Breathing Coal Ash is Hazardous to Your Health." Here is one shocking quote from the report release:

"Breathing toxic coal ash dust can lead to disease and even death," said Dr. Alan Lockwood, co-author of the report and emeritus professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "This is a dangerous pollutant that not only damages the respiratory system, but even increases the rate of heart attacks and strokes."

How long will we let this happen? The EPA must finalize strong coal ash standards this year to protect our health and ensure that we have clean air and water. It shouldn't take a massive spill, water contamination, or billowing dark clouds of coal ash dust to convince the agency to make this happen, despite opposition from the coal industry. Let the Dan River spill be our last coal ash spill – we don't need any more wakeup calls to tell us that now is the time for EPA coal ash safeguards that will protect our health.

What will it take? It will take all of us working together, raising our voices, and keeping the pressure on, until strong, long overdue national coal ash protections are in place.

TAKE ACTION: Tell the EPA to finalize strong coal ash standards. And while you're at it, tell your state legislators to demand action from the EPA as well.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign

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