During the upcoming weeks, Congress will be considering a dangerous amendment that guarantees more poison, disease and death from one of our nation’s biggest waste products: coal ash.
Coal ash is the waste leftover after thousands of tons of coal are burned at coal-fired power plants. It is laden with mercury, arsenic, cadmium, hexavalent chromium and lead, which are pollutants that cause cancer, organ disease, breathing problems, neurological damage, developmental problems and even death. A majority of coal ash is disposed in grossly inadequate dumpsites.
These dumps are often located in low-income communities, those least equipped to respond to water contamination and the onslaught of toxic dust. Low-income citizens are more likely to rely on groundwater supplies and less likely to have access to medical insurance and care. Despite the threat, banana peels and coffee grounds have better standards than this toxic waste.
Texas, alone, generates over 13.1 million tons of coal ash, and at least nine sites have contaminated water supplies. Illinois produces more than 4.4 million tons of coal ash annually and at least a dozen coal ash dumpsites have contaminated local water supplies.
Memories are short. Last October’s 25,000-ton coal ash landslide into Lake Michigan should have been yet another wake-up call to finally require companies that burn coal to dispose of their toxic waste without threatening health and the environment.
Every day the SS Badger, a coal-fired steamship, dumps four tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan — Chicago’s primary water supply. The EPA and public interest groups have uncovered coal ash contaminating nearby rivers, lakes, streams, aquifers and drinking waters at nearly 200 sites nationwide. Likely, there are more.
More than 100 times this session, the House of Representatives pushed favors to polluters, ignoring the public good. This time is no different: stuck onto an unrelated bill meant to create transportation jobs, the coal ash amendment threatens to poison American communities, prohibiting the EPA from ever setting federally enforceable safeguards for coal ash.
We’re seeing how this corporate pandering is playing out. The Center for Media and Democracy uncovered a link between the conservative corporate-funded nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and coal ash. ALEC pushes state and federal lawmakers to adopt public health loopholes that benefit their corporate partners. The group adopted a resolution in 2010 opposing any federal regulation of coal ash, pushing instead for weaker and ineffective state laws. The amendment just passed in the House advocates the exact same thing.
In 2008, a billion gallons of coal ash damaged two dozen homes and destroyed 300 acres in Kingston, Tenn., when the side of a coal ash dumpsite burst and flooded the nearby countryside. Yet the cleanup “solution” in Kingston illuminates our nation’s unsolved problem. In the aftermath of this disaster, over three million tons of coal ash were removed from the mostly white community and dumped in Perry County, Ala., where 90 percent of the community is African American.
Forty five percent of Perry County residents live below the poverty line. At the time, there were no state laws pertaining to coal ash dumping in Alabama. Without environmental standards to protect them, 54 Perry County residents filed a civil rights complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
Despite a Clinton-era executive order compelling government agencies to address environmental injustices, income and race remain strong predictors of the amount of pollution that Americans face. For the past two years, the EPA has been undergoing a public-standard-setting process for coal ash.
The inaction of the Obama administration has left the door open for congressional mischief. We hope the administration will tackle this inequality by enacting federal standards for the disposal of toxic ash in a timely fashion and that are protective of public health.
How many more spills like those in Kingston and Lake Michigan, how many more contaminated sites and how much more racial injustice will be perpetuated before all communities are finally protected from this waste? The transportation bill is intended to provide American jobs, not poison American communities. Congress needs to eliminate the coal ash amendment and let the Administration get on with the important business of protecting communities from toxic coal ash.
Dr. Robert Bullard is the award-winning author of 17 books on environmental justice and Dean at Texas Southern University’ Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs.
Congressman Bobby L. Rush has represented the First Congressional District of Illinois for almost two decades..
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