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Bill Threatens Protection From Toxic Coal Ash

22 Jul 2013  |   Priscilla Vencat

Flash back to a few days before Christmas 2008, when the US was struck by its largest environmental disaster to date. The Kingston, Tennessee coal ash dam burst flooded the surrounding residential area with more than one billion gallons of toxic sludge, laced with heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium, choking the land and waterways. 

This toxic sludge has a name: coal ash. Coal ash is a by-product of the burning of coal at power plants, and it’s produced at a rate of more than 140 million tons a year. It doesn’t just harm the environment, it’s horrible for public health, leading to neurological, cardiovascular and reproductive damage as well as skyrocketing the risk of cancer for those exposed. Much of the coal ash produced is kept in more than 300 coal ash dumps nationwide – 200 of which across 37 states have been cited by the EPA for contamination of groundwater, a clear reminder that more regulation is badly needed.

Much of these coal dumps are found in economically disadvantaged communities just like Kingston. Seventy percent of ash dams are located in areas where the household income stands below the national median. We should be working to improve these communities, not burdening them further with the effects of this toxic pollution. That’s why legislation – deceptively called the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (H.R. 2218) – is such a bad bill. It actually does the opposite by tying the hands of the EPA in safeguarding these communities.

Introduced by Rep. McKinley (R-WV1) and slated to make its appearance on the House floor this week, the bill strips the EPA’s authority to finalize a proposed standard and any future safeguards that regulate coal ash. This bill keeps leaky landfills open and does nothing to protect public health or the environment. Ultimately, this legislation would allow states to turn a blind eye to problems associated with coal ash while preventing the EPA, the cops on the beat protecting our air and water, from taking any action.

It’s what we've come to expect from one of the worst House of Representatives ever on environmental issues. A similar bill was proposed last Congress, and this bill continues that wrongheaded approach. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service faulted that bill for rolling back federal safeguards and putting public health at risk. Instead of applying the lessons learned from the previous bill, the current legislation is just more of the same.  

Congress should be doing everything possible to prevent another tragedy like the one we saw in Kingston. At a time when we should be working towards the goals set out by President Obama in his ambitious climate change address last month, this legislation takes us in the wrong direction. We need to move forward with the President's plan and keep the EPA on the job working with states nationwide to implement common sense public health and environmental safeguards that prevent exposure to toxic coal ash.

(Image courtesy of Appalachian Voices Flickr page



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