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Why One Community's Cries for Help Against Cancer and Others Diseases Are Going Unanswered

Residents claim a coal waste dump is poisoning water, polluting air, and causing asthma and cancer among those who live nearby. But no one will help.
 
 
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This may be considered flyover country for most eco-minded Americans, but smack dab in the middle of eastern Oklahoma there's an environmental rebellion afoot.  

Residents of the rural community of Bokoshe, population 450, are none too happy with the huge heap of blackened coal ash that is piled in a pit a mile from their quaint little Main Street. They claim the combustion waste is poisoning water, polluting their air, and causing asthma and cancer among those who live nearby. In fact, of the 20 households in closest proximity to the dump, 14 people have been diagnosed with cancer and many others have died since the site was opened eight years ago.  

An outfit that goes by the shameless name of Making Money Having Fun LLC (MMHF) operates the toxic coal ash pit. MMHF hauls the noxious debris by truck to Bokoshe from the nearby AES Shady Point Generation Plant. In a single day as many as 80 truckloads of coal ash are driven down Main Street and dumped at the site.  

Each year coal-fired power plants in the U.S. produce almost 140 million tons of scrubber sludge and coal waste, as well as additional combustion waste from the burning of the fossil fuel. This coal ash, which contains numerous toxins such as arsenic and lead, is contaminating groundwater, drinking supplies and wetlands in hundreds of communities and in dozens of states. Currently there are no federal regulations of coal waste disposal, but some Oklahomans aren't having it.  

"Making Money Having Fun might be having a good time dumping their coal ash in Bokoshe, but I assure you that the citizens are not having any fun at all," says Tim Tanksley, who lives in Bokoshe and has been vocal in his opposition to the site. "The fly ash is in our air and in our water; it is flowing into our creeks, streams and eventually into the Arkansas River."  

When MMHF applied for a commercial permit to dump ash near Bokoshe, it claimed there were no towns with a population under 20,000 within a three-mile radius. Except, of course, there were, and hundreds of folks lived in homes a lot closer than three miles away.  

From the beginning, residents claim, the company has been flat out lying. It lied about what it was dumping and now it is lying about its potential harm to human and environmental health. MMHF and AES are simply not acknowledging that their waste site, which is also allowed to have oil and gas water, could potentially be killing the citizens of Bokoshe.  

"They just told everybody it was dirt, that you could put it on your peanut butter and jelly sandwich," Tim Tanskley says. In December, students at Bokoshe Elementary in Oklahoma teamed up to ask AES to stop dumping fly ash from its Shady Point Generation Plant near their homes. Their teacher, Diane Reece, believes the coal ash has caused many of her students to develop debilitating asthma.  

"When I found out that nine kids out of seventeen in my sixth grade [class] had asthma," says Diane Reece, "I knew there was a problem."  

Last year the townspeople invited Obama's regulatory czar Cass Sunstein to visit their town to check out the site. They signed petitions, wrote letters, lobbied their local officials and cried out for help in every way they knew. Their request to Sunstein and the Obama White House was simple and to the point: The government should regulate coal ash and deem it the hazardous substance that it is.  

The Obama administration has not responded. But Tim Tanskley has not been deterred. Last April, Tanksley, along with John Wathen of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Elisa Young of Meigs County, Ohio set off for Washington to meet with Sunstein's office. Sunstein, unsurprisingly, was a no-show, and the trio was only allocated a few minutes to make their case.  

"It was a dog-and-pony show for us to feel better when we left," Wathen said.  

However, it was likely a classic DC dog-and-pony show for a good reason.  

Cass Sunstein, a former law professor and close friend of the president, has a sordid history when it comes to environmental health problems. As Sunstein wrote in his 2002 book Risk and Reason, "It remains unproven that the contamination of Love Canal ever posed significant risks to anyone."  

Sunstein holds this belief despite the fact that the EPA claims that even 25 years after the Hooker Chemical Company stopped using Love Canal for an industrial dump, "82 different compounds, 11 of them suspected carcinogens, have been percolating upward through the soil, their drum containers rotting and leaching their contents into the backyards and basements of 100 homes and a public school built on the banks of the canal."  

Sunstein has gone so far as to state that the American public overreacted to Bush's unpopular decision to suspend the arsenic rule issued during the Clinton years.  

"If a Republican nominee had these views, the environmental community would be screaming for his scalp," Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group, said in an interview prior to Sunstein's nomination hearing.  

The response MMHF gives to critics of its operations in Bokoshe has been callous at best, but the real culprit has been the owner and operator of the plant itself. A global energy giant, with over 120 projects worldwide, AES has been working hard to keep coal ash waste from being regulated by the federal government.  

AES is a member of the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA), an umbrella lobbying organization that represents all coal ash interests that includes other major coal burners such as Duke Energy, Southern Company and American Electric Power. The group argues that the so-called "beneficial-use industry" would be eliminated if a "hazardous" designation was given for coal ash waste.  

ACAA has also set up the pro-coal front group Citizens for Recycling First, which argues that using toxic coal ash as fill in other products like concrete and home insulation is safe, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.  

AES defended its practices to local media outlets in Bokoshe last December. Company spokesman Lundy Kiger told reporters that he was 100 percent convinced that fly ash is not hazardous to human health.  

"We drink the same water. We breathe the same air," Kiger said. "We have an outstanding environmental record over the past 20 years."

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality has acknowledged that the coal ash may be impacting people in Bokoshe, but has refused to act. The state's Department of Mines has not been of much help either and has denied that MMHF's ash pit could possibly be leaking contaminated wastewater.  

Bokoshe citizens have also asked for help from Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a global warming denier, and Representative Dan Boren, to no avail. Senator Inhofe was gracious enough to reply, "The fly ash is temporarily mounded while it is mixed with water to form slurry. Ultimately, the mine will be transformed into a pasture. Therefore, the fly ash mound is temporary and will disappear once the reclamation is complete."  

Meanwhile, both Inhofe and Boren do not want to see AES' dumping ground shut down anytime soon.  

"If you are going to an economically depressed area and killing people with this coal combustion waste just to feed the big cities with cheap electricity ... this is not right, this is not social justice," says a concerned and determined Tim Tanskley. "There is nothing right about that process."

Joshua Frank is an environmental journalist and author of "Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush." He is co-editor, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of "Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland." Frank and St. Clair are also the authors of the forthcoming book, "Green Scare: The New War on Environmentalism." He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.
 
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