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October 07, 2010

Oklahoma Town Fights Coal Ash

This post is the latest in our series of community coal ash profiles. It was written by Sierra Club Apprentice Flavia de la Fuente.

When a company named Making Money, Having Fun LLC (how's that for Orwellian?) applied for a permit for a commercial disposal facility to dump coal ash (along with waste oil and gas water) in eastern Oklahoma, they provided geographical maps and documents indicating that, pursuant to the Corporation Commission rules, there was no town of a population below 20,000 within three miles.

Except that's not true.

The town of Bokoshe (450 people) has been there since the 1800s. You can drive through it, you can stop at the post office, and you can graduate from the high school.

But for Making Money, Having Fun, there is no town and there are no rules. For eight years, they have been dumping waste oil and gas water and driving trucks of toxic coal fly ash (as many as 80 trucks in a single day), the product of a nearby coal-fired power plant run by AES, through the main street in town and dumping it in a pit a mere mile and a half from Bokoshe. Dozens of people in Bokoshe have died of cancer or are battling it right now, and children with asthma wake up in the middle of the night, struggling to breathe, afraid that they're going to die.

Diane Reece, an elementary school teacher in Bokoshe, protested the fly ash pit from the beginning.

"We didn't know anything about fly ash at the time," she said. "When they granted us a meeting downtown, it was a courtesy, because they were going to do it anyways. They haven't honored any of the promises they made, and they said it was harmless. And we believed them."

Tim Tanksley, another local Bokoshe resident, also recalls being told not to worry: "They just told everybody it was dirt, that you could put it on your peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

Choosing a site near Bokoshe was nothing if not predatory. Reece stated, "In small towns you have people who help each other. It's a beautiful place to live. It's a wonderful thing to live in a community to help each other. And I feel that they have chosen small towns because we are so trusting. We trusted that they wouldn't be dumping anything to harm us."

"They" is a broad term for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (lead state agency in charge of oil and gas water that issued the original permit), and the Department of Mines (lead agency in charge of reclamation).

To Reece and other Bokoshe residents, also complicit is Oklahoma's political leadership: the governor who appoints people to these various commissions, the local congressional representative, and the senators from Oklahoma, who in theory are charged with representing the interests of their constituents.

The ODEQ refuses to acknowledge that fugitive coal fly ash is impacting people and property outside the fence line. The Department of Mines refuses to acknowledge that the pit is leaking contaminated wastewater. And Oklahoma's political leadership refuses to acknowledge basic, incontrovertible science.

Tim Tanksley appealed directly to Senator James Inhofe and Representative Dan Boren to help, who in turn replied, "The fly ash is temporarily mounded while it is mixed with water to form slurry. Ultimately, the mine will be transformed into a pasture. Therefore, the fly ash mound is temporary and will disappear once the reclamation is complete."

Meanwhile, Senator Inhofe and Representative Boren are both helping the pit stay open.

According to Harlan Hentges, Oklahoman and attorney for Bokoshe residents, "Senator Inhofe is all over this thing. EPA stopped (the company) from dumping out there. After that happened, the Senator called EPA to find out when they could resume dumping in the pit. Representative Dan Boren did the same thing."

Hentges has learned to follow the money. "Those businesses pay a whole lot of money to do whatever the hell they want to do. They pay people to exploit the power that they have on their behalf. And you come up with all kinds of interesting ways to justify it. It's becoming really, really hard to justify in Bokoshe. What is wrong with this? What is so twisted here? Why is it so bad that we don't think you should dump fly ash into a pit?"

Bokoshe residents are fighting back, and founded B.E. Cause to protect their town, their health, and the future of their children. They've tussled with state agencies, with their elected officials, and even with other people in Bokoshe.

There's a younger generation that is fighting back as well: Diane Reece's class of sixth graders has taken the kind of initiative that reassures us that small towns are still America's moral compass.

Thanks to a federal grant program called "Learn and Serve America" there is structured time set aside for Reece's class (pictured below) to serve their community. Proposals for this year's program included a "Welcome to Bokoshe" sign and a bench downtown for the gossip group (it's a small town, after all).

But then three girls raised their hands and said, "We need to stop the fly ash." Reece asked the class how many people had asthma, and of the 17 students, 9 raised their hands.

Reece recalled, "That was my answer. They started telling me about what it's like to have asthma. I was listening to them tell me how their attacks made them feel like they were going to die."

Bokoshe 6th graders

"We're just getting started," said Reece, "my sixth graders are leading the cause. The other night at our parent-teacher conference, they got 25 signatures in an hours' time. And this type of stuff is important, because out here, not everybody has access to computers and the internet. Tonight at the football game, we're going to pass out flyers about fly ash."

Bokoshe may be a small town, but the residents have big hearts.


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