Environmental justice issues take center stage

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 8:23 PM

CROOM, MD. - The winding Mataponi Creek looks clear in the sunlight, with marsh grasses lining its banks. But some of the coal ash waste from a nearby power plant is also coursing through its waters, and residents are worried it is contaminating their well water.

The area around the Brandywine ash storage site - where waste from Mirant Mid-Atlantic's Chalk Point plant containing carcinogens and heavy metals ends up - is a fairly rural community, with residents who are far from politically active and have little leverage with elected officials who might act on the matter.

"Why is this not in some other county? Why is it not in the Potomac?" asked Fred Tutman, who heads the environmental advocacy group Patuxent Riverkeeper, as he navigated his motorboat on the Mataponi Creek. "It's about power, economic power, political power, resource power."

The controversy over toxic coal ash waste in this corner of Prince George's County - and fights for greater coal ash regulation from Alabama to Puerto Rico - highlights an issue that has been around for decades and is again in the spotlight: environmental justice.

Obama administration officials are looking at hazardous waste storage, toxic air emissions and an array of other contaminants to try to determine whether low-income and minority communities are disproportionately exposed to them.

The Environmental Protection Agency's administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, has made the issue one of her top policy priorities, alarming manufacturing and business interests.

"I really think of this as the biggest chunk of unfinished business when you think about the environmental landscape," Jackson said in an interview.

Maryland's Department of the Environment filed a lawsuit in January against Mirant over its discharges from coal combustion, which include pollutants such as arsenic and lead. For years utilities have had considerable leeway in how they handle this concentrated waste, but state officials allege that Mirant's storage site is discharging pollutants into groundwater without a permit.

In a written statement, Mirant spokeswoman Misty Allen said the company "does not comment on litigation matters. Mirant believes it has and continues to operate the Brandywine Fly Ash facility, purchased by the company in 2000, in accordance with all state and federal law and permits." She added that Chalk Point, the state's largest power plant, employs more than 250 workers and boasts an annual payroll of more than $30 million.

But 45 untested private wells are within a half-mile of the landfill, with a state wildlife refuge also nearby.

"Communities have a right to know whether the polluting facilities in their neighborhood are complying with the law," said Environmental Integrity Project staff attorney Jennifer Peterson, whose group is a party to the lawsuit.

In addition to looking at coal ash storage, EPA officials are reevaluating how the government defines solid waste and measures short-term exposure to smog-forming pollutants. They have forced a variety of emitters, including container-glass plants, cement plants and oil refineries, to install pollution controls in poor areas struggling with bad air quality.

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