Today I am officially turning over the blog reins to Mary Anne Hitt, the new Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign. She will now be blogging weekly on important coal and clean energy issues - so I urge you to bookmark her blog. Her first post is up now. Mary Anne has been with the Sierra Club for two years, serving first as the Deputy Director of the Beyond Coal Campaign. Before coming to the Club, she was the Executive Director of Appalachian Voices and co-founded, an online campaign to end mountaintop removal coal mining that received national recognition for innovation and impact. She was also previously the executive director of the Ecology Center and the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project. Mary Anne is a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. She received her Master's of Science from the University of Montana, where she received the Len and Sandy Sargent Environmental Advocacy Award, and her Bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee, where she was a Whittle Scholar and the founder of the campus group Students Promoting Environmental Action in Knoxville (SPEAK), and where she later received the 2008 Notable UT Woman Award. Mary Anne grew up in the mountains of east Tennessee and now lives in West Virginia. We feel very lucky to have Mary Anne's expertise and I hope you enjoy the insight and inspiration you’ll receive from reading her weekly columns. Start now - here's her first column: Our Best Chance to Rein In Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining (I will still be blogging here from time to time as Deputy Conservation Director of the Sierra Club, but not weekly. Mary Anne is now your go-to person for news on our coal campaign and the many issue surrounding the transition from coal to clean energy).
The comment period ends tomorrow for the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed federal safeguards for toxic coal ash. Coal ash is the by-product of burning coal for electricity, and it contains a toxic mix of chemicals: mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, selenium, and more. We've been calling for strong federal safeguards from EPA during the comment period over the past few months. You've seen more than 2,000 people wanting protection from coal ash rally and then pack the eight EPA public hearings across the U.S.We've helped more than 118,000 concerned citizens send in their comments via email and postcard so far. You've seen my blog profiles of communities affected by coal ash. You've seen the Sierra Club videos about the realities of coal ash (even CNN and 60 Minutes took it on). And people were still rallying yesterday, as a crowd of concerned families gathered outside EPA's DC headquarters to urge the agency to adopt the strongest coal ash safeguards possible. EPA is weighing two options for federal regulation of coal ash. Subtitle D, or as we call it - the Neglect Option, would rely on suggested state guidelines. This is no different from current policies. Despite the known toxicity of coal ash, a vast majority of states do not even require monitoring to see if coal ash is polluting drinking water. It's the lack of federal regulation that led to the current failed patchwork of state protections against coal ash and the massive Tennessee coal ash disaster. Simply telling states and the industry that they really should be more careful is not enough. And of course, this Neglect option is supported by power companies and other big polluters. And that's why we support the other option: Subtitle C, or as we call it - the Protect Option. This option would create strong safeguards to protect public health from the threats of coal ash, including mandatory water quality monitoring, record keeping and protections against runoff. It recognizes that coal ash is substantially more dangerous than household garbage and regulating it like the toxic substance it is will benefit communities and environments across the country. Coal ash contamination has flown under the radar for far too long. The coal industry should no longer be able to pass off their toxic waste on our communities. Have you sent your comment to EPA yet? Send it in by Friday, Nov. 19th, at 11:59pm ET. Take this last chance to tell EPA we need strong federal safeguards (Subtitle C – the Protect option!) for toxic coal ash.
The comment period for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed coal ash safeguards is winding down, with the deadline being next Friday, Nov. 19th. (Have you submitted your comment yet?) But just because the deadline is approaching does not mean we're slowing our action on coal ash. It's toxic and must be treated as such. That's why this week the Sierra Club opened a hotline to help residents report suspected contamination or spills of toxic coal ash across the country. Residents who believe there is toxic coal ash contamination near their homes either from an unreported spill or through leaking ash dumps are asked to call the toll-free hotline:  1-888-314-7450 Reported incidents will be passed on to the proper authorities for investigation and mitigation. Meanwhile, residents in Kingston, Tenn., are still coping with the aftermath of toxic coal ash almost two years after the massive Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal ash spill there. Alexandra Cousteau just released this very good video about her visit to Kingston in September of this year to see how the recovery is going. We can help prevent future coal ash disasters like the one in Kingston. Coal ash is hazardous, but less strictly controlled than household garbage. Tell EPA to adopt enforceable federal safeguards to protect our communities.
This post was co-written by Justin Guay of the Sierra Club International Climate Program.

In a blog post this week, United States Export-Import Bank President Fred Hochberg paints a rosy picture of future trade relations between the United States and key emerging markets such as India and South Africa - one which envisions a revamped American economy fueled by export trade that feeds a growing middle class.

Yet despite this rhetoric, Ex-Im Bank is not only failing to finance a clean energy economy, but it is also saddling dynamic emerging markets with 19th century fuels by propping up an industry only able to survive in a 21st century economy through political maneuvering, enormous subsidies, and misleading PR campaigns.

To underscore Ex-Im Bank's failure one need look back no further than last Friday, November 5th, when the board voted on the greenhouse gas implications of the enormous 4,800 MW Kusile coal-fired power plant in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

The vote, based on the Bank's carbon policy, is meant to weed out high carbon intensity projects and promote low carbon lending. If ever there were a project that failed to meet such criteria, it is Kusile, which alone will emit over 36 million tons of carbon dioxide annually while increasing South Africa's emissions by 9.7%.

What's more, this is a project Ex-Im Bank is willing to consider despite the fact that South Africa has not yet concluded its second integrated resource plan (IRP2) and climate strategy processes. This violates Ex-Im Bank's policy for highly carbon intensive project financing, which requires that "[t]he host country shall have developed a Low Carbon Growth Plan or Strategy and the project must be consistent with the results and objectives of that Plan."

Sadly, this is merely the latest in a growing trend which has seen Ex-Im Bank's fossil fuel financing skyrocket in recent years (PDF). Just a few months back, despite initially rejecting a similarly enormous Sasan coal-fired power plant in India, the Bank flip-flopped and decided to support the project. Then in a cynical attempt to gloss over this disastrous decision, the Bank pointed to a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Reliance (the Indian company responsible for the project) to build 250 MW of solar power as its "positive impact" on the project.

The Bank currently has a congressional directive to use 10% of its portfolio to finance renewable energy, which would generate roughly $2 billion in financing. However it achieves a meager 0.5-1% per annum, clearly failing in its mission to help build this strategic sector. Such discrepancies are critical as the Bank pursues President Obama's National Export Initiative, which seeks to double exports over five years. Without a serious shift in lending, this initiative will create the perverse incentive to prioritize these large-scale fossil fuel projects at the expense of the nascent clean technology export sector.

Sierra Club members submitted more than 7,000 comments and wrote more than 500 letters to Ex-Im Bank President Hochberg demanding that he promote 21st century American job growth by promoting technologies that create 13.5 jobs for every million dollars invested (compared to only 3.7 in oil and gas and 4.9 in coal).

In order to repair our sagging economy, put Americans back to work, and sustainably power the growing middle class in these dynamic emerging markets, Ex-Im Bank must not only talk the talk, it must walk the walk.

Tell President Hochberg as much in the comments section of his commentary.
My colleague said it well yesterday in his response to Tuesday's election results - we will not cede our future to polluters, who again poured tens of millions of dollars into various campaigns. No surprise here, the coal industry is part of those polluters throwing money around to support candidates who will keep the loopholes and handouts in place and help them block any action on global warming. According to an election spending report from the Center for American Progress:
American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) has spent more than $16.3 million in 2010, including $3,005,540 on a national ad and buys in Washington, D.C., Montana, and Texas over the last three months. The group has budgeted $20 million for online campaigns. This Big Coal front group is infamous for its forged letters to members of Congress opposing clean energy and climate legislation that resulted in a congressional investigation.
But the shady politics don't stop there. If you ever wanted evidence that the coal industry is corrupting our politics, look no further than the state of Kansas and the decision Tuesday by Governor Mark Parkinson to fire his chief environmental official Rod Bremby. In 2007, under then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Bremby had the courage to reject the massive proposed Sunflower coal plant because of its impacts on global warming. Global warming, Bremby argued, threatened the health and welfare of all Kansans. After the state legislature enacted new legislation that attempted to eliminate Bremby's authority to reject the permit and Sebelius was called to Washington to serve as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Governor Parkinson struck a deal with Sunflower Corporation to fast-track the coal plant permit. However, Bremby remained firm that he was not rushing the permitting and he had an obligation to ensure a fair and open public process and fulfill his legal duties to review the permit's legality before it could be issued. But on Tuesday, with everyone consumed with election coverage, Governor Parkinson fired Bremby. This was a crass political move to ensure the permit is issued before the Governor leaves office in January 2011. And another example of coal's corruption comes from Indiana, where Duke Energy is under investigation because "(a) top attorney in the Indiana Utilities Regulatory Commission took a job with Duke, which he appears to have negotiated at the same time he was overseeing decisions about Duke's new power plant." The Duke plant is already under construction (and $1.3 billion over-budget) and will continue construction during this ethics investigation. Meanwhile in Kentucky, coal isn't just proving itself unethical again, it's proving itself dangerous. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced yesterday it is asking a federal judge to shut down a Massey Energy coal mine in protect workers there. This the first time the MSHA has ever used this power.
In filing for a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court, the government cites persistently dangerous conditions in Massey Energy's Freedom Mine No. 1 in Pike County....The Freedom Mine employs about 130 miners and was cited for safety violations more than 700 times this year alone.
Coal is dirty and dangerous, and our politics and our health are at risk as long as the coal industry maintains its lock on our energy sector. That is why our work is so very important. We are not giving up and we are not done.
This is the latest in our series of community coal ash profiles. This piece was written by Sierra Club Apprentice Sari Ancel. Here's lovely daydream if you're from southeast Texas: It's a warm fall afternoon and you're out fishing on the banks of the Colorado River, listening to the sounds of birds migrating south. Unfortunately, a proposed coal-fired power plant will soon ruin that daydream. There will be no fish to catch because their habitat has long been polluted. Those birds overhead will be flying through smoke plumes from the nearby coal-fired power plant. And forget a quiet afternoon, you'll be hearing the hum of that nearby power plant. This is exactly what threatens Bay City, Texas - the proposed White Stallion coal-fired power plant. On September 29th, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) granted an air quality permit to the White Stallion coal plant, which is proposed for Bay City, putting the polluting project one step closer to completion. Yet despite this latest permit, residents of Bay City are not convinced that their air will stay clean or that their community will remain safe in the coming years - and for good reason. According to research, over its entire lifecycle, the plant will cause 600 premature deaths and cost over $5 billion in external costs to the community. Allison Sliva of the Matagorda County No Coal Coalition is helping lead the fight against White Stallion coal plant. The 1320-megawatt plant will burn petroleum coke and coal but it is not required to produce an Environmental Impact Statement. "The more you learn about this stuff, the more it makes you sick to your stomach," said Sliva, "It is so incredibly wrong the way things work." She is worried about the environmental and health impacts this new coal plant will have on Bay City, a small city close to the Gulf Coast known for farming, shrimping, and world-class bird watching. In addition to health impacts, the plant will require seven billion gallons of fresh Colorado River water every year. This fresh water is already a limited resource, with area farmers experiencing a severe drought in 2009. "Water is the most finite commodity we have that the state is already fighting over," said Sliva. "And we're giving water to the dirty coal plant but not to our local food growers." The White Stallion power plant design has also proposed coal ash dump sites just miles away from the Colorado River. Coal ash, which is the toxic waste left behind after coal is burned, contains arsenic, selenium, lead, and mercury. The dump site proposals are open coal ash pits, a design that is exceedingly dangerous when considering how prone this coastal area is to hurricanes. Bay City residents were asked to evacuate for hurricanes Ike and Rita. The area also gets an average of 42 inches of rainfall yearly, and Slilva and her fellow residents have yet to see an adequate coal ash flood plan from White Stallion "I'm very concerned about the coal ash because it is virtually unregulated," she said. "We're going to have mountains of it. We have a shallow water table and we're worried about it leeching into the groundwater...I'm hoping that the (Environmental Protection Agency) comes through to regulate the coal ash." Sliva is referring to the new coal ash safeguards proposed by EPA. She joined hundreds of others who went to an EPA public hearing in Dallas, Texas, to testify about the dangers of coal ash. If EPA enacts stricter safeguards, then Sliva and the residents of Bay City will have one less problem to worry about with the White Stallion plant. Unfortunately, that would still not be enough to fully protect Bay City. While the White Stallion plant promises job creation, this does not account for the Bay City jobs lost because farmers won't have enough water for irrigation and the impacts on the fishing industry due to polluted waters. "We have a small rural community with little political clout," said Sliva. "We were targeted because they didn’t think anyone would fight it." But Sliva and other members of Bay City have proven that wrong by fighting and gaining momentum against White Stallion coal plant. "Bay City's motto isn't Beaches, Bay, Birding, and Coal Plant'" says Sliva. But, to stop this from happening, "people need to be calling, emailing, faxing, and writing letters to keep this issue in front of the faces of the agencies and elected officials. Keep waving the red flag and raise it up." Tell EPA to enact strong federal safeguards for coal ash.
Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, is a new mom and has some words for those trying to greenwash schoolkids and college students: As a new mom, I'm paying more attention these days to how big companies are trying to influence our kids. I just learned that one of the biggest blockers of climate action in the U.S. is now bringing its obstructionism to your kid's middle school classroom. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy just released an energy education guide for teachers of 5th - 8th grade. The guide explains to kids where our nation currently gets its energy, and then asks this question:
"What do you think could happen if one of our energy sources was suddenly unavailable (e.g., power plant maintenance, government curb on production, etc.)?"
Outside the classroom, the Chamber is working overtime to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from doing anything about global warming pollution. Of course, EPA would never put this nation in a position where "one of our energy sources was suddenly unavailable." But that doesn't stop the Chamber from suggesting that scary scenario to our nation’s kids and their teachers. The Chamber has long opposed any action on curbing global warming pollution and other dangerous emissions from dirty power plants, whether it comes via action from the EPA or Congress. Now they're focusing on instilling their wrong beliefs into our kids. Just look at the focus of their Institute for 21st Century Energy:
"The mission of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy is to unify policymakers, regulators, business leaders, and the American public behind a common sense energy strategy to help keep America secure, prosperous, and clean. Through policy development, education, and advocacy, the Institute is building support for meaningful action at the local, state, national, and international levels."
Sounds innocent enough, but after watching the Chamber spend millions against any action on cleaning up the dirty power plants that poison our air and water and cause global warming, it seems that we all know their real "common sense energy strategy" - make sure polluters can keep on polluting at current levels, regardless of the impact on today's kids and future generations. Right now EPA is proposing several safeguards to protect Americans from the pollution caused by coal-fired power plants - including rules that would treat coal ash (the by-product of burning coal for electricity) as the toxic waste that it is. EPA officials have already said that living near a toxic coal ash site can be worse for kids' health than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. The Chamber doesn't like these proposals, or any others that would require utilities to clean up coal pollution, and they are working overtime to stop them. And this isn't the first time that the Chamber or the coal industry has directly targeted kids or young people with a misleading pro-coal message. The list goes on and on. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the coal industry want you to believe that coal will not affect your or your children's health, and that any action by EPA will destroy the economy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. So for my new baby and the rest of America's kids, I’d like to add my own discussion question to the Chamber's energy education guide: "What do you think could happen if we don't shift from coal and oil to clean energy sources, and families find that pollution makes the basic essentials of life suddenly unavailable (e.g., clean air, clean water, etc.)?"
This is the latest in our series of community coal ash profiles. This was written by Sierra Club Apprentice Philip Hawes.

Tennessee's Emory River has long been treasured for its natural beauty.

In 1867, when a young man by the name of John Muir decided to walk from his home in Indiana, all the way to Florida, he crossed the Emory River. Its beauty struck him, and he wrote the following in his journal (which became his famed book "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf"):
"There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream, and this is the first I ever saw. Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overarching trees, making one of Nature's coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator. Lingered in this sanctuary a long time thanking the Lord with all my heart for his goodness in allowing me to enter and enjoy it."
Unfortunately, 141 years later, the Emory River would inspire sorrow.

On December 22, 2008, a little before 1 a.m., an earthen dam holding back an 84-acre coal ash disposal pond, collapsed. A flood of 1.1 billion gallons (around six times the amount of BP's oil disaster) of coal ash slurry poured into the Emory River and onto the surrounding land. Coal ash is the by-product of burning coal for electricity and contains toxic materials such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium. The spill covered more than 400 acres and destroyed houses, roads, and trees in its path.

"It was unreal. There's no way to imagine what it was like," said Steve Scarborough, a resident of Roane County, where the disaster took place. "They keep saying it's an ash spill. That's like saying an avalanche is a snow spill."

The earthen dam that failed had problems for years, including multiple leaks. And Scarborough, a civil engineer himself, said that the fixes they made were inadequate, based on bad engineering, and chosen just to cut costs. According to Scarborough, it was "just sheer incompetence. And the community suffered because of it."

Scarborough owns two properties on a lake adjacent to the spill site. He had purchased them ten years earlier as an investment. Before the disaster he had both properties on the market, deciding to sell them in order to put his kids through college. But now, he said, "They're worth pennies on the dollar."

Despite the national real estate market being down in late 2008, the real estate values in the area were relatively strong - until they crumbled following the coal ash disaster.

Scarborough said, "Even in the worst of times there are still people retiring, and we are that market. This is where they retire to. The value of waterfront properties had not yet declined." But afterwards, no one wanted to buy property, even miles away.

He spoke of one couple that decided against waterfront property in Roane County after hearing about the coal ash disaster: "The wife saw the newspaper and they stormed out. They bought waterfront property; they just bought it the next county."

Many land owners sued the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which operates the coal plant and coal ash disposal site responsible for the disaster, for the lost value of their property. But Scarborough said that to get money for their property, many of the people signed settlements with TVA that included a gag order and a waiver for any future health problems. Scarborough hasn't filed a lawsuit with TVA, saying he's just "trying to get TVA to do the right thing. Whatever's fair." But, he added, "They just don't want to do it."

The economic problems due to the disaster aren't limited to real estate. The tourism industry in the area has also been severely hurt, and Scarborough said that's affected the entire local economy, calling it "economic devastation."

The cost of cleanup could end up totaling $1 billion, in addition to lost property value, lost tourism, and the effects it has had on the rest of the local economy, as well as possible health risks.

Following the disaster, TVA performed a health study to find out if any health problems had been caused by the spill. But, Scarborough said, the study was very incomplete. Out of the 200 volunteers that participated in the study, only a small handful actually lived in the immediate area.

"The study came out saying that there are no health effects. That's total bullsh-t. They're putting their heads in the sand. And they're trying to push our heads in the sand." He continued, "If you believe TVA, I've got a couple lakeside lots to show you."

For the almost two years since the disaster occurred, TVA has been dredging coal ash out of the water, putting it into rail cars, and sending it to Alabama to another disposal site. Scarborough said they fill around 100 rail cars a day with the material.

TVA claims to have removed around 90% of the coal ash, but Scarborough believes isn't true. He says as they're dredging, they pick up a lot of sediment along with the ash. Any material that is less than half sediment is classified as coal ash, which means a lot of what they're picking up isn't actually coal ash.

Above all, Scarborough is tired of coal companies avoiding responsibility for their mistakes.

"If we put a rock through someone's window, we have to buy a new window, and that doesn't seem to be the case with these coal companies. TVA is in denial - they aren't owning up to what they've done."

The disaster in Tennessee was one of the major reasons Lisa Jackson and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed new safeguards for coal ash disposal. Having proposed two possible rulings, EPA has been holding public hearings around the country for citizens to weigh in on the decision. Scarborough traveled to North Carolina to testify at the September 14th EPA hearing and he’ll also attend the Tennessee hearing on October 27th.

Scarborough said that the disaster in Tennessee wouldn't have happened if EPA had already passed federal safeguards for coal ash disposal.

"Having seen the results of lax oversight, we feel we have to campaign for the most stringent regulatory option," he said. "This cannot be left to the states where lobbyists wield oversized power on compliant legislators. We don't want anyone else to go through what we've been through."

Scarborough points out that the coal ash from the Tennessee disaster that has been shipped to Alabama still hasn't gone away. "To be honest with you, the remedy, where they're storing the ash now, it's not contained. They just built a wall around it." Since there still aren't yet any federal regulations, the same coal ash that caused so much destruction in Tennessee still isn't being stored in a safe manner.

Scarborough calls Roane County stunningly beautiful and is hopeful for the time years from now when the mess is cleaned up. But about John Muir's famous walk, he says, "He'd be pretty disappointed in what he saw if he was there today."
Hot off the presses: EPA just announced it is recommending rejecting the massive Spruce Mine in Logan County, West Virginia, for the simple reason that it can't comply with long-standing clean water protections. EPA Region 3 and Administrator Shawn Garvin recommended that the permit for Spruce be withdrawn (read the recommendation in our press release). In short, this proposed mountaintop removal coal mine would release huge amounts of toxic pollution into the state's waterways. That has been illegal across the country and today Lisa Jackson is proposing the same protections for Appalachia. Today's recommendation flows from President Obama's and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's commitment to restore science and uphold our bedrock Clean Water Act. EPA is proposing to take the radical step to ensure that the residents of Appalachia have the same clean water protections afforded other residents around the country. For far too long Appalachia's residents have been subjected to pollution from coal mining practices that would be prohibited elsewhere in the United States. There are so many local grassroots heroes who have spent more than a decade fighting this massive mountaintop removal coal mine. As we have worked with our members and allies in Appalachia to tell the story nationwide about the incredible destruction associated with mountaintop removal mining, the overwhelming response we hear outside of Appalachia is "How can that be allowed to happen in the United States?" This decision is long overdue. During the Bush Administration hundreds of mines were approved, dozens of mountains were razed and pollution killed stream after stream after stream. Sierra Club and our allies are working to stop this pollution, and recently a federal court ordered a $45 million clean up of an existing mine, but it is far better to not approve these mines in the first instance. The next step is for EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to put the final nail in this destructive project and finalize her decision. This decision should then guide the agency to do what the science and public health demands - end the practice of mountaintop removal mining once and for all. We need a uniform rule that says no more mountaintop removal mining, period. Let's put this devastating practice behind us. Let's put residents to work restoring the land and waters damaged by coal mining over the past decades. And, let's overcome the naysayers who oppose Appalachia sharing in the jobs and economic development that comes with building a clean, renewable energy future underway across the country.
This is the latest in our series of community coal ash profiles. This piece was written by Sierra Club Apprentice Lydia Avila.

The community of Joliet, Illinois, identifies as many things - Midwestern, humble, and hard-working. Yet they also identify with something much less positive: being collateral damage. According to Joliet residents, they don't even merit a second thought to Midwest Generation, a coal-fired power plant that has been dumping toxic coal ash near Joliet for over 40 years.

Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal for electricity, and it's having a major impact on Joliet. Residents say if you were to spend a week in Joliet you would find yourself driving through coal ash fog; a stroll in your yard would cause you to come back covered in "black stuff" and/or yellow particulates; you wouldn't be able to drink or bathe in the water; and your clothes would come out of the washer tinted orange and black from the chemicals in the water. 

If you spent time in Joliet, residents say, you would see this "black stuff" covering your car, yard and house on a daily basis, and you certainly could not fish in any of the lakes, rivers or streams in the area.

But, they added, even worse are the health effects that you and your loved ones would experience: nose bleeds, blisters, skin infections, migraines, coughing, gagging, mercury poisoning, neurological disorders, to name a few. And, these would culminate in the form of asthma, kidney transplants, heart transplants, lymphoma, neurological disorders, seizures, rare forms of leukemia, emergency hysterectomies, and lupus (again, just to name a few).

Tammy Thompson knows the health effects first-hand - calling herself and her family part of that collateral damage. Her six-year-old daughter Faith has suffered the effects of living near a coal plant since she was born. Faith’s doctor diagnosed her with Grave's Disease and recommended that she, and all the children in Joliet, be routinely tested for lead and mercury poisoning.

Thompson recalls times when she often had to struggle to gain composure in her car, while her daughter in the backseat would ask, "What's that smell, mommy?" and then complain of headaches. She saw her daughter suffer from blisters and sores every time they bathed her in a storage tub filled with bottled water following recommendations from her doctor, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and others. Yet, for a long time, their health problems remained a mystery.

Thompson and her neighbors have taken matters into their own hands, filing report after report and making phone call after phone call to local, state and federal agencies. When Thompson discusses the actions taken by the people of Joliet, she underscores the fact that this is a human issue: "I'm not an environmentalist, I'm a mom. I'm not an activist, I'm an American," she said.

Unfortunately, Joliet residents say their concerns have consistently been ignored by every public agency and department that, in theory, is supposed to help them.

The IEPA and local officials play a game of ping pong with their cries for help, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims not to have jurisdiction over the area. The IEPA likes to claim that these diseases occur naturally, but there is nothing natural about the levels at which they occur in Joliet.

On the rare occasions when the IEPA has returned a few a call, agency officials have tried to justify the horrendous living conditions by saying the jobs at the coal plant and its coal ash disposal site are needed.

Thompson says that supposed "gain" certainly pales in comparison to watching her family and friends suffer the health effects. "'Get use to it and get over it' is what they try to tell us," Thompson said.

Not surprisingly, when the Environmental Integrity Project and Sierra Club's recently released coal ash report, "In Harm's Way," Joliet was listed as one of the most contaminated sites in the country. The town of Joliet has received national attention from such figures as Erin Brockovich and, at the time, Senator Obama.

Thompson and her community continue to ask why they aren't receiving any help. "Why doesn't the EPA prove something is safe? Why must we wait for a body count to show it’s not?" asked Thompson.

"It's not an environmental issue; it's an ethical, social and civil rights issue."

Tell EPA we need strong federal safeguards for toxic coal ash.