Delayed Coal Ash Regulations Put Public Health at Risk
Groups head to court to force issuance of important national safeguards
Washington, D.C. – Environmental and public health groups announced their intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal court to force the release of long awaited public health safeguards against toxic coal ash. The EPA has delayed the first-ever federal protections for coal ash for nearly two years despite more evidence of leaking ponds, poisoned groundwater supplies and threats to public health.
“We have waited long enough for the EPA to act,” says Sandra Diaz, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina Campaign Coordinator. “In North Carolina, we know for a fact that many coal ash ponds are contaminating groundwater, and we need the EPA to step up and provide strong guidelines to ensure public health and safety.”
Earthjustice, on behalf of Appalachian Voices (NC), Chesapeake Climate Action Network (MD), Environmental Integrity Project, French Broad Riverkeeper (NC), Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KY), Montana Environmental Information center (MT), Physicians for Social Responsibility, Prairie Rivers Network (IL), Sierra Club and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (TN), sent the EPA a notice of intent to sue the agency under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The law requires the EPA to ensure that safeguards are regularly updated to address threats posed by wastes. However, the EPA has never undertaken any action to ensure safeguards address the known threats posed by coal ash, a toxic mix of arsenic, lead, hexavalent chromium, mercury, selenium, cadmium and other dangerous pollutants that result from burning coal at coal-fired power plants.
More than 5.5 million tons of coal ash is created each year in North Carolina, the ninth highest in the country. There are 26 active ponds in the state, 12 of which have been rated “high-hazard” by the EPA, meaning that if the ponds were to break, it would probably cause a loss of human life. The state has not moved to create state-specific standards on coal ash, though utilities have been required to do additional groundwater monitoring
“As we witness a state legislature intent on weakening the ability of state agencies like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to do its job, we need the EPA to move forward with strong federally-enforceable guidelines that will protect communities from the dangers of coal ash,” said Pricey Harrison, a state legislator who represents Guilford County.
Following a spill of more than a billion gallons of coal ash at a disposal pond in Harriman, Tenn., in December 2008, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced in 2009 plans to set federal coal ash regulations by year’s end. In May 2010, the EPA proposed a hybrid regulation to classify coal ash either as hazardous or non-hazardous waste. After eight public hearings across the country and more than 450,000 public comments, the agency decided to delay finalizing the rule amid intense pressure from the coal and power industries.
Despite numerous studies showing the inadequacy of current federal coal ash safeguards to protect public health and the environment as well as documented evidence by the EPA and environmental groups showing coal ash poisoned aquifers and surface waters at 150 sites in 36 states, the EPA continues to fail to adopt federal safeguards. Today’s lawsuit would force the EPA to set deadlines for review and revision of relevant solid and hazardous waste regulations to address coal ash, as well as the much needed and overdue changes to the test that determines whether a waste is hazardous under RCRA.
“Politics and pressure from corporate lobbyists is delaying much-needed health protections from coal ash,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “The law states that the EPA should protect citizens who are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in their drinking water from coal ash. As we clean up the smokestacks of power plants, we can’t just shift that pollution to the waste and think the problem is solved. The EPA must set strong, federally enforceable safeguards against this toxic menace.”
“The EPA promised to set standards for coal ash disposal sites more than a decade ago,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director at Environmental Integrity Project. “Are we going to have to wait for another disaster before EPA finally keeps that promise?”
“The toxic threat that coal ash poses to human health is severe,” said Dr. Maureen McCue, MD, PhD, of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Coal ash contains contaminants that can cause cancer and can damage the intestines, liver, kidney, lungs, heart, peripheral nervous system and brain. It’s unthinkable that the EPA allows this toxic stew to get into drinking water. It doesn’t get much dirtier than this.”
“Two of the nation’s 49 high hazard coal ash dams sit on the banks of the French Broad River. These ponds pose a looming threat to the health and safety of the surrounding community, as well as the French Broad River,” said Hartwell Carson, French Broad Riverkeeper. “The dams also hold back toxic coal ash that pollutes the groundwater and surface water every day. It is time for the EPA to act to protect the French Broad River and the hundreds of similarly impacted rivers and communities around the country.”