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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.

"The intensity and focus on this issue in this administration, the integration of it into the bowels of the agency, has been so aggressive, those of us who do this work cannot keep up with what the administration is doing," said Vernice Miller-Travis, vice chair of the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.

Among the EPA's moves: reviving an interagency environmental justice task force that had been dormant for a dozen years; issuing a formal guidance to regional offices instructing them to seek the input of disadvantaged groups when making decisions; and drafting a plan to integrate the concept of environmental justice into the agency's everyday decision-making.

This flurry of activity worries industry officials such as Keith McCoy, vice president for energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, who warned that it could hurt business operations across the country.

"Basically, EPA is saying to regional offices, engage with the environmental justice community and don't meet with anyone else on the issue," McCoy said, referring the draft guidance. "They've turned this more into a confrontational issue."

Jackson calls those kinds of objections "nonsense," saying her agency is simply reaching out to neglected communities that remain "hot spots of emissions, hot spots of contamination." People living in those neighborhoods, she said, don't want to lower their living standards in exchange for work.

"Find me the person who says, 'I'll take the pollution if you give me the job,' " she said.

But for years, certain urban and rural areas have served as magnets for industrial facilities and waste sites, sometimes because they generate economic opportunities. Chemical plants, an incinerator, a power plant and other facilities in three Baltimore neighborhoods - Brooklyn, Curtis Bay and Hawkins Point - released more than 20.4 million pounds of hazardous air pollutants in 2008 alone, and there are now plans underway to locate both a waste-to-energy incinerator and an ash landfill in the area.

Andy Galli, Maryland program coordinator for Clean Water Action, said one of the problems with the current permitting process for those facilities is that "there's nothing that requires cumulative effects on these communities."

People began talking about the issue of environmental justice four decades ago. During the first Earth Day in 1970, Chicano activist Arturo Sandoval led a march from an Albuquerque park to the city's barrio, where protesters waved signs with messages such as "Keep Your Pollution, Give Us Life."

The term entered the national lexicon in 1987 when the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published a report on the issue, sparked by North Carolina's decision to place a toxic waste facility in a poor, predominantly African American community in Warren County.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, activists like Robert D. Bullard, who directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center in Atlanta, are still scheduling meetings with EPA regional officials, for example, to question the deposit of waste from the BP oil spill in the majority-black town of Campbellton, Fla., and the shipment of toxic coal ash from the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority spill in mostly-white Roane County, Tenn., to a site in mostly-black Perry County, Ala.

"We're not just talking about something that happened 30 years ago, legacy stuff," said Bullard, who attributes those decisions to regional EPA officials rather than headquarters staff.

Bullard and others are pressing EPA to adopt a more stringent rule regarding the handling of coal ash: Right now the agency is deciding whether to require federal oversight of its transport and disposal, or to establish guidelines that the states could choose whether to enforce. Industry advocates argue that stricter rules will drive up costs and make it more difficult to reuse the coal combustion waste.

The issue is a source of contention as far away as Puerto Rico, where a subsidiary of the Virginia-based energy giant AES built a coal-fired plant in 2002 without establishing a landfill. For a few years the company shipped the waste to the Dominican Republic, but when that nation sued over the environmental impact and refused to accept any more, AES - which declined comment - started selling it as cheap landfill in Puerto Rico.

Now housing developments such as Parque Gabriela II in Salinas, one of the island's poorest regions, have piles of coal ash elevating their homes above the flood plain and lining a storm water retention pond whose contents could end up in the city's sole source of drinking water.

"All of this is getting leached into the aquifer," said Osvaldo Rosario, an environmental chemistry professor at the University of Puerto Rico's Rio Piedras campus. Rosario has sampled ash from the site, and an analysis showed radioactive material at more than twice the recommended limit under EPA guidelines.

Ruth Santiago, a lawyer representing several environmental groups in Puerto Rico, has appealed to EPA to step in and control the coal waste's disposal. "We've been asking for many years for attention to this issue," she said. The agency's proposed rules are "a step in the right direction. . . . As it is now, they can call it beneficial use, and have anybody dump it anywhere."

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