Two Years After the Tennessee Spill, Coal Ash Still Pollutes Nationwide

coal ash photo

A pond in Meigs County contaminated with coal ash
Image: Elisa Young/Meigs Citizens Action Now!

Elisa Young became active against coal when she started wondering what was making people in her town so sick. She lives in Racine, a town in Meigs County, Ohio, which is not near any major cities, but is near several major power plants. Four plants are located within 12 miles from her farm—although there is a push to open more—and there's coal ash everywhere. So she started to put two and two together.

We're approaching the two-year anniversary of the TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, which if nothing else, demonstrated the need for better regulation and improved safety precautions for dealing with the waste from coal-fired power plants. Here's a look not at other coal ash spills, but at how coal ash continues to affect communities around the country. Meigs County has the highest death rate by lung cancer in the state, according to the American Cancer Society, and the highest rate for all cancer deaths combined. It doesn't help that there is no medical care—income in the area is low, families and children are least likely in the state to have health insurance in the state, and Young said it's nearly a 45-minute drive to the nearest hospital—but something was causing all the illness in the first place.

"Right now, I'm sitting on the side of the road looking at coal ash," she said during our phone conversation. "When I go dig up in my garden, you know what I see? I see coal ash. I raise my chickens to eat the eggs—I don't want that in my garden, I don't want that in my chickens."

Coal ash is everywhere in Meigs: it's in the water, and while the industry denies coal ash as a health hazard, cancer is rampant in Meigs, and not only in humans. Cows have been found with cancer, even deer have been found with cancer.

There's little environmental regulation on coal ash, the waste product of the coal combustion process used to produce power, despite dangerous levels of toxic and radioactive contaminants. Coal ash is currently exempt from toxic waste rules and instead can be reused in almost limitless applications under the "beneficial use" rule. Around the country, it's used, unmonitored, in road construction and to some extent in running tracks, including at schools. It's used to make everything from carpets to fertilizer to cinder blocks, and sometimes gypsum board and roofing shingles. "Anyone who wants to gather water from their roof, like I've always done, has to wonder what's in the shingles."

According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, coal plant pollution kills 30,000 people a year. Young breaks that down into a more understandable context: "That's 65 people a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. People had the decency to respectfully mourn the 29 miners who were killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion. Double that number, add 7 more, and that's how many people are dying each day."

Young has turned to local and federal environmental agencies and to the legal system for action, to no avail. To her, the system looks stacked against the people trying to fight the coal industry. "The country runs on coal," she said, and thinks that is the rule running the agencies that have refused to crack down on coal regulation nationally or at the local coal plants individually.

"We need the EPA to stand up for us," she said, calling specifically on tighter coal ash regulation from the EPA. She wants the EPA at a minimum to adopt the hazardous waste classification for coal ash when it decides between the proposals currently under consideration. "The EPA can only enforce existing rules—we have to have an existing rule that protects public safety," she said. "Where they fail, we don't have other meaningful ways of addressing it."

Around the country, the same story
Ask Harlan Hentges and you get a very similar picture, but hundreds of miles away in Oklahoma. Totally different circumstances, suspiciously similar story. Hentges, an environmental attorney, has been working on a case in the town of Bokoshe, where coal ash is dumped from a nearby coal plant into an old strip mine just south of town. He said for seven years, ash was dumped with no effort to control the large dust issue that accompanies coal combustion waste, despite violations of the Clean Air Act and the Fugitive Dust Rule. The dust has a consistency that Hentges describes as similar to baby powder—meaning it can settle into the smallest of spaces all the way into neighboring towns. That includes getting in people's lungs, and it doesn't come out.

The EPA has cited the power company at least twice, ordering it to stop dumping into the local river, but Hentges said it continues to run off. The people of Bokoshe have gone to every agency possible looking for action against the power plant, again with no result. Hentges is waging a legal battle on behalf of the people of Bokoshe, but it's an uphill battle. The plant has reconfigured the pits somewhat, but water keeps running off, and it's possible that water is running into the underground mine that sits directly below the strip mine, and therefore contaminating groundwater. Because both the plant and public agencies refuse to test for contamination down there, however, no one can say for sure whether that's a problem or how serious it is.

Cancer is already plaguing the community: Hentges said of the approximately 20 houses on a road that sits within two miles of the facility, about 15 are facing or have faced some type cancer.

With the EPA expected to release its decision soon on new coal ash regulations, potentially as soon as this month, here's hoping coal ash will at least be officially classified as hazardous waste, and treated as such.

Interested in learning more about the effects of coal ash? Check out another project in Montana that I'm working on.
More on coal ash
One Year Later, TVA Coal Ash Spill Problems Still Far From Over
Coal Ash from Tennessee Spill Shipped to Poor County in Alabama
EPA Claiming Coal Ash Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Not In My Backyard: Coal Ash Landfill (Video)
Aftermath of the TVA Coal Ash Spill: Get Ticketed for Taking Water Samples (Video)

Two Years After the Tennessee Spill, Coal Ash Still Pollutes Nationwide
Elisa Young became active against coal when she started wondering what was making people in her town so sick. She lives in Racine, a town in Meigs County,

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