A federal coal ash strategy: putting health and safety first

By Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Chairwoman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in the House of Representatives

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would crack down to protect public health and the environment from coal ash contamination. EPA will ramp up enforcement of its rules to prohibit companies from dumping coal ash into unlined storage pits, and to require those companies to speed up their efforts to close down the existing pits that have been shown to leak.

As the Chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, I want to see our federal agencies making policy decisions based on science. And in the case of coal ash, enforcing EPA’s existing standards for coal ash pits is clearly supported by the science. I applaud the EPA for their determination to hold facilities accountable to protect our communities.

Coal ash is a powdery gray toxic waste that results when coal is burned for electricity. It is filled with chemicals like lead, mercury, arsenic and selenium that cause cancer and damage nearly every organ in the body. Until the Obama Administration issued a rulemaking in 2015 that established new restrictions, power companies were essentially free to dump coal ash waste into unlined landfills and ponds on their properties across the country. With no barrier between the waste and the surrounding earth, these legacy catchments leak into the groundwater. It is estimated that 91% of coal ash units are contaminating the surrounding groundwater with toxins as we speak.

Like so many types of pollution, coal ash leakage is a social justice issue, as residents near pits are disproportionately people of color and low-income. Thus, as burning coal for energy has contributed to growth and economic prosperity in our country, communities that already face underinvestment and discrimination have borne the burden of this cheap but dangerous disposal method. And catastrophic spills of coal ash have brought the systemic hazards of this method to light.

In 2008, a ruptured dike sent 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry from the Kingston coal plant in Roane County, Tennessee across 300 acres of land and into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River. Because the cleanup contractor lied to workers about the need to wear protective gear in the presence of coal ash, hundreds of people who helped clean up the Kingston coal ash spill site have been diagnosed with lung diseases, cancers, and other ailments associated with their exposures. Over fifty of these workers have died.

This tragedy in Tennessee is one of the greatest environmental catastrophes the United States has ever witnessed, and it was entirely preventable. Fourteen years later, the federal government has not done enough to keep people from being exposed to coal ash. EPA’s 2015 regulations instituted some critical, common-sense protections, like limiting water runoff. But the Trump Administration then advanced a series of eight rules to weaken the 2015 standards, rather than strengthen them: delaying closure of unlined ponds, creating loopholes in cleanup standards, and relaxing groundwater monitoring. These proposals did virtually nothing to support the public interest, and instead benefited the site operators whose coal ash ponds poison marginalized communities.

It is too late to prevent the suffering of those affected by the Kingston Fossil Plant spill. However, by issuing its ruling last month, the U.S. EPA is taking a huge step to prevent further harm. As Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, Administrator Regan led the largest coal ash cleanup in U.S. history. I am counting on him to continue to apply that valuable experience and the best available science to address our national challenge of coal pollution. The American people deserve a federal coal ash strategy that puts their health and safety ahead of corporate profits.

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Science Committee Democrats

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology