This post is the latest in our series of community coal ash profiles. It was written by Sierra Club Apprentice Flavia de la Fuente. When a company named Making Money, Having Fun LLC (how's that for Orwellian?) applied for a permit for a commercial disposal facility to dump coal ash (along with waste oil and gas water) in eastern Oklahoma, they provided geographical maps and documents indicating that, pursuant to the Corporation Commission rules, there was no town of a population below 20,000 within three miles. Except that's not true. The town of Bokoshe (450 people) has been there since the 1800s. You can drive through it, you can stop at the post office, and you can graduate from the high school. But for Making Money, Having Fun, there is no town and there are no rules. For eight years, they have been dumping waste oil and gas water and driving trucks of toxic coal fly ash (as many as 80 trucks in a single day), the product of a nearby coal-fired power plant run by AES, through the main street in town and dumping it in a pit a mere mile and a half from Bokoshe. Dozens of people in Bokoshe have died of cancer or are battling it right now, and children with asthma wake up in the middle of the night, struggling to breathe, afraid that they're going to die. Diane Reece, an elementary school teacher in Bokoshe, protested the fly ash pit from the beginning. "We didn't know anything about fly ash at the time," she said. "When they granted us a meeting downtown, it was a courtesy, because they were going to do it anyways. They haven't honored any of the promises they made, and they said it was harmless. And we believed them." Tim Tanksley, another local Bokoshe resident, also recalls being told not to worry: "They just told everybody it was dirt, that you could put it on your peanut butter and jelly sandwich." Choosing a site near Bokoshe was nothing if not predatory. Reece stated, "In small towns you have people who help each other. It's a beautiful place to live. It's a wonderful thing to live in a community to help each other. And I feel that they have chosen small towns because we are so trusting. We trusted that they wouldn't be dumping anything to harm us." "They" is a broad term for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (lead state agency in charge of oil and gas water that issued the original permit), and the Department of Mines (lead agency in charge of reclamation). To Reece and other Bokoshe residents, also complicit is Oklahoma's political leadership: the governor who appoints people to these various commissions, the local congressional representative, and the senators from Oklahoma, who in theory are charged with representing the interests of their constituents. The ODEQ refuses to acknowledge that fugitive coal fly ash is impacting people and property outside the fence line. The Department of Mines refuses to acknowledge that the pit is leaking contaminated wastewater. And Oklahoma's political leadership refuses to acknowledge basic, incontrovertible science. Tim Tanksley appealed directly to Senator James Inhofe and Representative Dan Boren to help, who in turn replied, "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, Senator Inhofe and Representative Boren are both helping the pit stay open. According to Harlan Hentges, Oklahoman and attorney for Bokoshe residents, "Senator Inhofe is all over this thing. EPA stopped (the company) from dumping out there. After that happened, the Senator called EPA to find out when they could resume dumping in the pit. Representative Dan Boren did the same thing." Hentges has learned to follow the money. "Those businesses pay a whole lot of money to do whatever the hell they want to do. They pay people to exploit the power that they have on their behalf. And you come up with all kinds of interesting ways to justify it. It's becoming really, really hard to justify in Bokoshe. What is wrong with this? What is so twisted here? Why is it so bad that we don't think you should dump fly ash into a pit?" Bokoshe residents are fighting back, and founded B.E. Cause to protect their town, their health, and the future of their children. They've tussled with state agencies, with their elected officials, and even with other people in Bokoshe. There's a younger generation that is fighting back as well: Diane Reece's class of sixth graders has taken the kind of initiative that reassures us that small towns are still America's moral compass. Thanks to a federal grant program called "Learn and Serve America" there is structured time set aside for Reece's class (pictured below) to serve their community. Proposals for this year's program included a "Welcome to Bokoshe" sign and a bench downtown for the gossip group (it's a small town, after all). But then three girls raised their hands and said, "We need to stop the fly ash." Reece asked the class how many people had asthma, and of the 17 students, 9 raised their hands. Reece recalled, "That was my answer. They started telling me about what it's like to have asthma. I was listening to them tell me how their attacks made them feel like they were going to die." Bokoshe 6th graders "We're just getting started," said Reece, "my sixth graders are leading the cause. The other night at our parent-teacher conference, they got 25 signatures in an hours' time. And this type of stuff is important, because out here, not everybody has access to computers and the internet. Tonight at the football game, we're going to pass out flyers about fly ash." Bokoshe may be a small town, but the residents have big hearts.
The coal industry is a filthy business, but that doesn't stop the industry from spending a fortune on PR consultants to try and distract attention away from the costs it imposes on Americans every day. With labels like "clean coal" and "green coal," the coal industry's spinmeisters spend a lot of time and money trying to pretend coal is something it is not.

Now in response to a successful campaign by the Sierra Club and our allies in the United States to stop the construction of new coal plants - we are up to 145 plants stopped - Peabody Energy - the world's largest coal company - is proposing to grow its market by shipping coal overseas to impoverished countries.

Peabody's rationale for going overseas? They have a moral duty to alleviate energy poverty in countries that lack access to electricity.

Before exploring Peabody's new campaign to ship coal overseas, let's take stock at the industry's anti-poverty legacy in the United States:
  1. The three poorest counties in America are all in Appalachia's coal country and have given for decades at the altar of King Coal. And while the coal barons are richer, the counties have nothing but rampant poverty to show for the toxic mess Peabody and its ilk have left behind. Just which country is Peabody imagining aspires to be dominated by coal and look like the poorest parts of Appalachia or the Southern Illinois coalfields?

  2. Last month the Clean Air Task Force released a new report documenting that the fine particle pollution from coal plants causes upwards of $100 billion in health costs every year. These costs include asthma attacks, emergency room visits, and cancer. In addition to the Americans who are breathing coal's pollution and paying with health problems, all of us are also paying higher insurance costs and taxes to pay for coal's pollution.
The $100 billion health costs that coal is imposing on Americans is about the same amount Americans pay in health care costs resulting from smoking, and this is only the cost from particle pollution. It does not include the health care costs from other coal toxins like mercury causing brain disorders, or the environmental costs of fish-less lakes and streams across the Adirondacks and Appalachia. Smoking and coal burning are twin ills, literally killing and maiming Americans every day.

Over the past five years, the Sierra Club and our allies have highlighted coal's cost on our health and environment and stopped more than 145 new coal plants from breaking ground, effectively ending the industry's opportunity to grow in the United States. Now in response, the industry is taking another page from the tobacco industry's playbook: Ship its deadly product overseas

Peabody Energy recently announced its new campaign to "end global energy poverty." The company is proposing to ship U.S. coal overseas to bring electricity and prosperity to the world's two billion residents that lack access to electricity.

Peabody urges us to ignore coal's pollution and focus on poverty:
"The greatest crisis we confront in the 21st Century is not a future environmental crisis predicted by computer models, but a human crisis today that is fully within our power to solve. For too long, too many have been focused on the wrong end game," said [Peabody CEO and Chairman] Gregory Boyce.

"For everyone who has voiced a 2050 greenhouse gas goal, we need 10 people and policy bodies working toward the goal of broad energy access. Only once we have a growing, vibrant, global economy providing energy access and an improved human condition for billions of the energy impoverished can we accelerate progress on environmental issues such as a reduction in greenhouse gases."
Peabody's Boyce even had the audacity to say, "We must put people first." Which people is he referring to? The miners who paid the ultimate price at the Big Branch disaster in April? The 13,000 people who die annually from coal plant pollution?

Peabody wants us to ignore coal's complete lack of concern for its worker and pollution here in the U.S. because it wants to divert focus onto another problem. (They've even got it all spelled out in this Power Point presentation).

This PR ploy is ugly and offensive, and an act of desperation. Students at Washington University in St. Louis recently protested Peabody's Boyce's appearance at their school: "Alleviating poverty worldwide is something we should all be focusing on, especially as we look at developing a clean energy future that is open to everyone - selling more coal however, will only help pad Peabody's pockets."

Just like other dangerous and corrupting corporations before it - read tobacco - the coal industry when feeling the pressure in the U.S. has always tried to target the workers, communities and countries least able to resist their abuses. Today in the U.S., with a national movement to move the country beyond coal there is a bright spotlight on the filthy lifecycle of coal from mining to burning to ash disposal, and the coal industry is running out of places to hide.

It has also run out of growth opportunities in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, and now wants to exports its pollution to developing countries.

Nice try, but we are not going to let this happen.

Mr. Peabody, consider yourself on notice. You can run, but you can't hide. We will not let you replicate your century of abuse of our workers, of our communities, of our environment, elsewhere in the world. We will use every outlet we have to collaborate with our allies overseas, to alert them that you are offering fool's gold, that clean energy is cheaper and lacks coal's polluting and corrupting ways. You will find no resting place.

This latest plan - perhaps your most audacious cynical ploy to date - will fail as surely as your efforts to build 150 new coal plants in the United States.
This post is the latest in our series of coal ash community profiles. Our work on coal ash unfortunately becomes timely yet again, as news came out this week of a breach at a coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. This week's profile was written by Sierra Club Apprentice Andrea Sanchez.

There is nothing little about Little Blue Run Dam, the coal fly ash impoundment that reaches into both Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Coal ash is the toxic by-product of burning coal for electricity - the Little Blue Run ash impoundment belongs to the Bruce Mansfield Plant. This plant is FirstEnergy's largest coal-fired power plant, burning around seven million tons of coal annually.

At full capacity, the three plants that make up Bruce Mansfield complex produce four million gallons of coal slurry daily. This is where Little Blue comes in.

Little blue
Seven miles of pipeline will bring you to a 1,694 acre disposal site known as Little Blue (see its eerie blue color in the above Google Maps satellite image). By the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) own admission, Little Blue is one of 49 sites around the country whose dam currently has a High Hazard Potential rating. This rating means that if the dam holding back Little Blue's toxic slurry - the largest earthen dam in the country - were to breach, it would result in probable loss of life, largely to communities across the river in Ohio.

In addition to the structural hazard, coal ash also contains toxic metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and selenium, to name a few, and so far EPA has not required special liners to ensure that coal ash does not contaminate nearby waterways.

Debbie Havens, of the West Virginia side of the impoundment, remembers the first time the energy company spoke to her about the expansion of the impoundment years ago. A man came to her home armed with a colorful brochure and said, "There will be swimming, boating, walking and bike trails, a place a family could spend time together."

She told him, "I'm sorry sir, but I have a hard time believing that."  That was the first and only time that anyone came to her door. Now large properties are being bought off left and right to make room for more coal ash waste at Little Blue.

For those living near unlined coal ash impoundments the risk of cancer can be as high as 1 in 50, which is 2,000 times higher than EPA's "acceptable cancer risk of 1 in 100,000." This statistic only takes into account the risk of cancer from arsenic exposure in drinking water.

When looking at the entire list of toxins contained in coal ash, the health risks are even worse. Havens' husband had his thyroid removed several years ago after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer and now Havens herself has a thyroid nodule which doctors are watching. Doctors also found three benign tumors doctors in her breast.

With no family history of thyroid problems, her endocrinologist has assessed that environmental exposure as the cause and told her, "You need to move or you will never survive this stuff."

In her community three men have already died from cancer this year. One thing is sure, she said, "Life is a lot different than that pretty brochure 36 years ago."

On the other side of the impoundment in Pennsylvania, Barb Reed and her son are living about a mile away from the site in Georgetown. Reed has lived in the area since 1978; her son is now living with her because he can no longer use his own water. His home is closer to the impoundment and after both FirstEnergy and the state Department of Environmental Protection found that the levels of arsenic in his water were exceeding the maximum EPA levels, he decided he had to leave his home.

"It's terribly upsetting because he can't even take showers or wash dishes, he's had to leave his home, and he's still paying a mortgage on it," said Reed. "They haven't even offered him a viable water supply because they claim it is not their fault."

If the risk of cancer, the potential for contaminated water, and the destroyed landscape isn’t enough - there is also the smell of rotten eggs. "You can't breathe because of the smell. Your throat burns, your eyes burns, everyday we're surrounded by fly ash," said Havens.

Even from a mile away Reed is reluctant to use her water because of the smell of rotten eggs coming from the tap. While she used to garden in her own backyard, she now grows vegetables out of buckets with store-bought soil to avoid eating contaminated produce.

It is time for EPA and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to treat coal ash as the toxic waste that it is. Both of Reed and Havens have attended the EPA coal ash public hearings in their areas hoping to get the agency to enact federally enforceable standards that will treat coal not like household garbage - but as toxic waste.

"A banana peel is household waste, not fly ash," said Havens.
This week's coal ash community profile was written by Elizabeth Irvin, a Sierra Club Apprentice. KY coal ash Ash about 20 feet over containment berm, 50 yards from residents’ homes in Riverside Gardens. Picture is taken from 2nd story window of resident's house. Credit: Thomas Pearce, Sierra Club. For one weekend each year in early May, Louisville, Kentucky, boasts an abnormally high concentration of horses, jockeys, mint juleps, and elaborate hats. Less than ten miles from Churchill Downs, the neighborhood of Riverside Gardens has been dealing with an abnormal and deadly concentration of toxic chemicals every day for more than 40 years. A low income neighborhood in an area of Louisville known for its concentration of chemical plants, landfills, and power plants, Riverside Gardens may soon be forced to deal with yet another threat: a second coal ash dump in their community. Monica Burkhead thought she was living the American dream when she bought a house in Riverside Gardens at the age of 17. She was assured that the neighborhood was safe, but has since learned that she is surrounded by growing quantities of all forms of toxic waste. The sources of these toxins include 11 chemical plants, a 2.4 million cubic yard unlined chemical landfill that is one of the state's oldest superfund sites, and multiple unlined coal ash waste ponds at the Cane Run coal plant owned by Louisville Gas and Electric. The oldest of these coal ash ponds was built in the 1970s, but there are no records of any monitoring of any pond until 2005. The largest of these ponds is one of 49 nationwide that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated as "high hazard" - meaning that a dam failure like the 2008 disaster in Tennessee would probably result in loss of life. Ash in this pond looms 20 feet over the containment berm, 50 yards from homes and within 350 yards of the Ohio River. Louisville Gas and Electric is currently seeking permits to "expand" the pond at the Cane Run coal plant by constructing a new 5.7 million cubic yard, 14-story-tall pond some 1,500 feet from the existing one. What little data can be obtained about the existing ponds shows that they have been leaking sulfates into local groundwater. Neither the coal plant nor the state government has made public any tests of the toxic heavy metals found in coal ash, including arsenic, selenium, and mercury. Monica and her neighbors live in a community ravaged by cancer. EPA has found that people living near coal ash ponds have a risk of cancer greater than that of smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. Community organizers say that behind every door they knock on is someone with either cancer or kidney failure. When Monica took the community's concerns to the chemical and coal companies, they told her that it was their lifestyles, and not the toxic contamination, that was making them sick. Monica doesn't smoke or drink, eats healthily, and gets regular exercise. All of her family members except her husband have battled cancer. The industries evidently consider living in Riverside Gardens a lifestyle choice, even though the neighborhood existed long before plants that are now polluting it. Resident Terri Humphrey expressed a common sentiment when she told a community meeting, "I believe the companies think that it’s already so bad down there that it doesn’t matter if they dump something else on us." Monica, Terri, and other Riverside Gardens residents will testify at the upcoming EPA coal ash hearing in Louisville on September 28th. Monica says that EPA can begin to repair her trust in government’s ability to protect communities by enacting a strong, federally enforceable rule that ends dangerous practices like the ones employed at the Cane Run plant. Last spring, a group of children at nearby Farnsley Middle School were top 10 finalists in a competition to be "America's Greenest School." In the video they produced, students talk about their plans to manage the school's waste more responsibly. Strong leadership from EPA and Administrator Lisa Jackson can make coal companies live up to the example set by the students in their own community. See to learn more and take action on toxic coal ash.
This week's coal ash community profile post was written by Gabriel DeRita, a Sierra Club Communications Apprentice. Also, follow today's EPA coal ash public hearing in Chicago via our @SierraClubLive and @SierraClubIL Twitter accounts. The area around Surry County, Virginia, is already home to some sinister projects, including several major coal ash disposal sites and Michael Vick's infamous dog fighting operation. One of the disposal sites is the local golf course, the Battlefield Golf Club. The green is sculpted with 1.5 million tons of coal fly-ash. Now a major Virginia power provider, the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), wants to site a 1500 mega watt coal plant, accompanied by several hundred acres of ash disposal sites, along the Blackwater River in Surry. This project, if completed, will be the largest coal-fired power plant in Virginia. Its coal ash will be stored in several landfill areas around the plant. If the power plant itself falls through, ODEC representatives have indicated an option of developing the site as an exclusive coal ash landfill. Executives announced on Wednesday, September 8, that the project deadline is being pushed back from 2016 to 2020, citing concerns over pending federal regulations and lagging electricity demand. Though ODEC remains committed to pursuing the project, the delay comes as a welcome relief to local residents, and backs up arguments made by environmental and community groups that there is no pressing need for coal-fired power from such a massive plant. Local residents like Betsy Shepard, mother of two, have been fighting ODEC tooth and nail since 2008, and the announcement comes as a major vindication of their efforts. Shepard is a busy full-time mom, but found the time to take a leading role in her community's fight to curb the march of coal ash contamination. "I had no intentions of taking such an active role in the fight, but as is often the case in small communities, one has to step up and lend a hand when there is a need," said Shepard. In meetings with ODEC officials, Shepard and her fellow community organizers have met with flippant and dismissive comments. In one instance, company officials told Shepard's husband they will plant trees to block his view of the 650 foot smoke stacks that will accompany the plant. When he pointed out there are few trees in Virginia taller than 100 feet, the official replied, "Well, you won't be able to see the smokestacks if you're right up on [the trees]." Unfortunately for the residents of Surry, none of them live in trees. When asked if they will provide a lifetime guarantee on the disposal site's protective liners, the ODEC representative laughed and said, "Nothing lasts forever." Shepard replied, "Yes. That's our fear." The new plant is of particular concern not only because of its size, but its location adjacent to the Blackwater River and its large area of surrounding wetlands, which feeds into the shallow aquifers that all 7,000 residents of Surry County rely on for fresh water. Residents of the county use private wells, and the three incorporated towns have their own municipal water systems, all drawn from aquifers. There is no water treatment or reservoir in Surry County. Because the Dendron aquifer is unconfined and receives water directly from the surface, it is very susceptible to contamination. Anything that flows through the ground surface can quickly reach the water table. According to Shepard's calculations, the coal ash sites will sit approximately 1,500 feet from Dendron's main water source. The proposed site is also within three miles of county schools, wedged between wetlands along the Blackwater River and a row of homes on main street Dendron, a small town within Surry. Shepard is fearful of the changes this will bring to the quaint, small-town Virginia landscape. "The plant and ash piles would be, literally, in people's backyards...picture Leave It to Beaver's house with a massive industrial complex, 650-foot smokestacks, and 7-story tall ash piles directly behind it." The proximity to homes also creates air quality concerns. Surry County has the third highest asthma rates in the State of Virginia. In ODEC's permit application to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, they describe the possibility of "fugitive emissions" and "wind erosion" from the vast ash stacks. Company officials sang a different tune at community meetings, saying the ash was secure and would only blow in a 100-year storm, claiming "zero [airborne] emissions." This clear disconnect between fact and rhetoric is especially frustrating to Shepard, who spent dozens of hours educating herself and her neighbors on the threats they will face, only to have industry officials call public meetings and spread misinformation to her community. Most people in her town had no idea a massive coal plant is being proposed, let alone any stance on the issue. Shepard and her friends joke that "we know more about coal than we ever wanted to," but their diligent fact-checking and research has helped inform her community about the risks of the proposed plant, and opposition is growing. After word got out about the plant proposal, the town council meeting was "packed like sardines," with people lined up out the door to comment. "Word spreads fast in a small town," Shepard jokes. But thanks to her efforts to inform her neighbors and their effective organizing, every comment submitted was against the plant. The recent announcement of a two-year delay in the project by ODEC comes as a major relief to community residents, but Shepard and others acknowledge the fight is far from over. On the heels of this delay, it is important the pressure against this project remains strong. Sign the petition against the Surry project. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducts an ongoing series of nationwide hearings on re-classifying coal ash as the toxic waste it is, the voices of community leaders like Betsy Shepard will continue to be instrumental in providing real stories to back up the hard data on the dangers of coal ash. Click here to find out more about a hearing near you, and how you can add your voice to the growing call to protect American communities from the dangers of coal ash. EPA needs to set federal standards for coal ash disposal to protect communities like Surry from increased and continued exposure to known toxins. As more communities speak out on this issue, the harder it will be for federal officials to ignore their calls for clean air, clean water, and an end to coal's toxic legacy in America.
You've seen our push against toxic coal ash continue over the past few months as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seeks public comment on how to regulate coal ash. Our push continues this week with the unveiling of a new coal ash video we produced and a Facebook application. Take a look at the video first: Left over after coal is burned, coal ash contains a dangerous mix of arsenic, mercury, lead and other pollution, pollution known to cause cancer and other serious illnesses. As was noted in the video, living near some coal ash sites can be more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. To keep the pressure on EPA to regulate coal ash based on how toxic it is, we are launching new efforts to educate and engage citizens, many of whom are unaware that they may live near a toxic coal ash site. This week we launched a new Facebook application, the Toxic Coal Ash Site Locator, which allows you to find out how close you, your friends and family live to these toxic dumps. Try it now, and then take action. There are still EPA coal ash public hearings left across the U.S. - attend one to voice your concern, or submit your comments via email right now.
The Environmental Protection Agency is in the middle of a series of public hearings at sites around the country to gather input on new protections from toxic coal ash. This week's blog post comes from Sierra Club Apprentice Jenny Kordick.


After watching a deer refuse to drink water from a reservoir on a hot summer day last August, Colstrip, Montana area ranchers knew something was wrong. The water, found to contain toxic levels of sulfates, was traced back to a coal ash dump. Coal ash contamination in Colstrip, Montana dates back nearly 30 years. Colstrip sits on one of the largest coal deposits in North America, and is home to four coal-fired power plants owned by Pennsylvania Power and Light (PP&L).The company disposes of coal ash, the toxic by-product of burning coal, in wet ash dumps, known as settling ponds,in the area. Insufficient pond linings and poor construction techniques, in addition to lack of state environmental regulation,have led to widespread contamination of water resources in Colstrip. "The state of Montana has had every opportunity to right this wrong, and has failed in every way," said Clint McRae, a Colstrip area rancher. The ranching community in Colstrip, including McRae, expressed concern about the ash settling ponds used to dispose of coal ash, but were assured by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality the ponds would not leak, and if they did, the power plants would be shut down. "We were lied to." McRae stated. "We trusted our state and federal agencies to represent our best interests, and keep us from damage. This has not happened." The livelihood of McRae and other ranchers in Colstrip is threatened by toxic coal ash, as healthy water quality is critical to the success of ranching operations. Simply put, cows drinking toxic water will die. Two coal ash ponds in the area were found to be leaking water containing 16 times the amount of sulfates needed to cause death in cattle. Instead of cleaning up the coal ash contamination and fixing the leaks, PP&L has opted for a cheaper method to silence the issue. This involves fencing off contaminated ponds, and buying up damaged and polluted land, including the land containing the reservoir where the deer refused to drink. PP&L is getting by with this for now, but McRae, whose family has been in the area for five generations, makes one thing clear: "Our places are not for sale." In 2008, PP&L settled for $25 million with 60 homeowners in Colstrip whose drinking water became contaminated. McRae, who was not involved in the lawsuit, is acting as a voice for his family and neighbors that settled with PP&L and can no longer speak out on the issue. McRae traveled to the Denver coal ash hearing last week to speak out for strong, federally enforceable protections from coal ash as the Environmental Protection Agency considers a proposal to federally regulate toxic coal ash disposal for the first time-a proposal that, after more than two decades, may finally help stop leaking coal ash ponds and protect the families in Colstrip. The Denver hearing McRae attended was the second of seven hearings nationwide that are being held to gather public opinion on how to regulate toxic coal ash disposal. See for more information and to find out how you can tell the EPA what you think.
As I have mentioned on this blog before, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently holding public hearings at sites around the country to hear your input on draft regulations for the disposal of toxic coal ash. This week’s blog post comes from Sierra Student Coalition Apprentice Margaret Hoerath, who writes about an activist who travelled to the coal ash hearing in Virginia earlier this week. --- “This is a bureaucratic mini-Katrina because FEMA doesn’t know what’s going on here,” said James McGrath, a citizen from Giles County in Southwest Virginia, where a coal ash disposal site is located. Coal ash is the toxic byproduct left over after burning coal and contains elevated levels of dangerous poisons such as mercury, lead, and arsenic. The Cumberland Park Project, essentially a coal ash disposal site dressed up as a real estate development project, is prompting concerns from local citizens like McGrath. There have been dozens of documented cases where coal ash has contaminated surface water or groundwater in at least 23 states, according to a 2007 EPA study. There are some places near coal ash disposal sites that have water with levels of heavy metals tens and even hundreds of times above federal drinking water standards (U.S. EPA, Coal Combustion Waste Damage Case Assessments, July 9, 2007). McGrath points out that the disposal site is in a 100 year floodplain and is “unlined,” which allows toxins from the coal ash to leak into the area’s groundwater and potentially into someone’s drinking water downriver. McGrath is particularly concerned about the lack of public participation in the approval process for the project, and the fact that the county administration dodged the proper Federal Emergency Management Administration permitting process by misrepresenting the materials to be used at the site on their application. The administration told FEMA that they were using dirt fill materials instead of specifying that that they were using toxic coal ash from American Electric Power. By misrepresenting the materials to be used on their application, the Cumberland Park Project was able to circumvent the local public hearing process that should have been required. For McGrath, a 60 year old veteran who was with the 1st marine division in Vietnam, this process violates his democratic values. McGrath explains that it took him two years and eleven months to get a grip on the ins and outs of the permitting process and to understand all the players and beneficiaries in the project. “If it was Chinese, I could go to the Mandarin opera and understand it,” McGrath explained. “It’s a labyrinth. [This permitting process is] intentionally done this way to confuse people.” McGrath explained that it is important to understand the permitting process in order to understand the strategies used to get Cumberland Park approved. McGrath has worked on this issue by asking the key players tough questions and by shedding light on all the decision makers involved. He needed to do a lot of digging to find the information he needed to inform others. He became well-versed in the proposed project and was a major source of information for Concerned Citizens of Giles County, which is the group that was formed directly in response to the Cumberland Park Project. McGrath calls himself a long-time environmental activist and found out about this project through involvement in another local environmental group. “We need more citizens to get involved in activism,” McGrath said. He said that he wishes young people would take more of a role in their government. McGrath calls many of the moves that the county and AEP used to usher the project in as “slick.” By providing incorrect information on their FEMA developmental permit application, the county avoided having public hearings and prevented local residents from taking a stand on the project. Despite the fact that many coal ash ponds and disposal sites have been shown to leak over time, the Cumberland Park project is allowed to be built in a floodplain and without a composite liner. Since the project is being touted as a development project where future businesses and buildings could be built, bringing jobs to the area, it is termed a “beneficial use” project and slips under the radar. Industry lobbyists have aimed to limit public participation and they accomplished this by ensuring that a “beneficial use” clause was part of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality permitting process. The “beneficial use” clause was part of the reason that Giles County did not have to hold any public hearings. “The lobbyists are intentionally influencing legislation to eliminate public participation,” McGrath says. Through public participation and pressuring public officials back home, McGrath has shed light on the dark side of the project in an effort to create change. McGrath says working on this issue was like a full time job. After driving five hours from Southwest Virginia to testify at the Washington DC Environmental Protection Agency coal ash hearing on August. 30th, McGrath now plans to stop working on the issue. He wants to let the issue take a life of its own and devote more time to his woodworking jobs, tending his property and spending time with his family. “I’m going to go back to being a grandparent," he said. "I haven’t seen one of my grandchildren for a third of their life.” The Washington DC hearing McGrath attended was the first of seven hearings nationwide that are being held to evaluate regulations regarding the disposal of coal ash. See for more information and to find out how you can tell the EPA what you think.
Power industry lobbyist Jim Roewer: "Wasn't a problem." Leslie Stahl: "Well, it was a problem, but we just didn't know it." This excerpt from a recent 60 Minutes story on toxic coal waste sums up the current trouble with the millions of tons of toxic ash left over each year from burning coal for energy. While scientists and experts know, and have known for years that coal ash is full of harmful pollution that can cause cancer and other serious illnesses, the issue flew largely under the radar until the massive TVA disaster. Even now nobody, including the EPA, has a full picture of how much of this toxic waste is out there, where it is, or if it is staying put. The coal industry has dumped millions of tons of its toxic leftovers at thousands of sites across the country with no federal oversight, and utterly inadequate state policies. The result? Toxic ash dump sites lacking even basic safety protections, drinking water sources poisoned and people unknowingly at risk. A new investigative report reveals more than three dozen new sites in 21 states where toxic coal waste has made water supplies unsafe. These sites are the latest in a steadily growing number of waters known to be contaminated by poor management of coal ash. So far more than 130 cases of coal ash contamination have been found in 34 states, and even EPA admits this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Many state agencies (like those in Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico and Tennessee to name a few) require no monitoring of waters near toxic coal ash sites. Other states, like West Virginia, do such a poor job of monitoring as to be useless. About 70 percent of the toxic coal ash generated nationwide is dumped in states that don't require monitoring to see if toxic contamination is leaking from coal ash sites. The report shows that states responsible for only four of the coal ash sites have required an investigation to determine the scale of the pollution. Not one state has required the toxic pollution to be stopped, let alone cleaned up.  There is a clear need for the EPA to step in where the states have failed to protect our communities. Lisa Jackson and the EPA have recognized this and the agency is currently considering whether and how to regulate toxic coal ash. Monday the EPA will begin a series of hearings across the country to gather public comment on the new protections. The first hearing will be in Arlington, Virginia, followed by hearings in Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Kentucky over the next month. Whether you attend a hearing in person or submit comments online I urge you to send a strong message to EPA that federally enforceable protections are absolutely necessary in the face of the growing risk from coal's toxic waste.

by Bruce Nilles, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign

Contrary to the impression you may have been left with after reading a recent Associated Press piece about the future (or lack thereof) of coal in this country, the reign of “King Coal” is ending.

Though the AP piece makes some good points (specifically, noting that “the process [for producing electricity from coal] has changed little since Thomas Edison built the first plant in 1882” and that even after $3.4 billion in stimulus spending, there is currently “no way of capturing carbon” from coal-fired power plants), the idea that coal-fired power is expanding as opposed to rapidly declining is inaccurate.

Just a few years ago, “King Coal” was hoping to build 151 new coal-fired power plants while the Bush Administration’s coal-friendly federal regulators were “on the job.” This was a troubling idea for many reasons. From the mine, to the plant, to the ash pond, coal is our dirtiest and most dangerous energy source. It causes four of the five leading causes of death in the United States, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases. It destroys mountains and releases toxic mercury into communities. The carbon pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants is responsible for more than 30% of our country’s total global warming pollution.

In response to this Coal Rush, the Sierra Club in 2005 launched a nationwide Beyond Coal campaign with a broad swath of allies to block these plans.

As of today, the Sierra Club and our allies have blocked 129 new coal plants from being constructed, keeping well more than 530 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. No new coal plants have broken ground since 2008 and clean energy is filling the vacuum, with record amounts of both wind and solar power projects up and running in 2009. Yes, there were some coal plants that sneaked through and came online in 2008 with enormous help from the Bush Administration’s coal-friendly permitting process. That number of coal plants, however, is a fraction of what was planned and represents significantly less than the growth in clean energy during the same time period- growth that would not have been possible if the energy market had been swamped with filthy coal. The wind industry alone added 8,300 MW to the grid in 2008- more than five times the 1,400 MW of new coal added to the grid that year.

Make no mistake, the Coal Rush is over. The costs of the plants that did make it through should serve as a reminder than no clean energy project has ever taken five years to build and witnessed 100 percent cost overruns. The steps to finally move America beyond coal have begun.

We are now in phase two of our efforts to dethrone King Coal, get our energy infrastructure out of the 19th century and build a modern and clean power sector. This phase involves retiring and replacing the oldest and dirtiest coal plants and opening up more market share for clean energy. Since January 2009, more than 8,300 megawatts of existing coal (about 16 average-sized coal plants) have been slated for retirement in the next decade. The tens of thousands of dedicated grassroots activists who first help to stop the coal rush are now busy phasing out outdated existing coal plants.

While we have made significant progress over the past few years, our work is clearly far from done.

It was an outrage when earlier this summer, corporate polluters relied on a minority of Senators to block action to cut coal plant pollution when conservationists, labor, veterans, communities of faith, small businesses and everyday citizens all agreed it was the right thing to do. Failing to address this problem puts all the collective future of our country, and our planet, in jeopardy. Scientists tell us that to avert runaway global warming we need to phase out coal plants in less than two decades.

Ending coal’s contribution to global warming, as well as the smog that plagues most of our cities, is a top priority for the Sierra Club, and we will continue to fight for the necessary changes in federal policy. With Congress stymied by a minority of Senators, we are engaged in other venues to address the litany of serious problems caused by coal.

Lisa Jackson at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is busy working on enforcing clean air and clean water laws designed to end the regulatory loopholes too-long exploited by King Coal. After eight years of Bush Administration backsliding and inaction, the safeguards seek to put public welfare back on top of the priority list. Among those safeguards are efforts such as:

The EPA is currently in the process of hosting public meetings across the country to hear input on these rules, with the first hearing on the Good Neighbor rule to be held in Chicago on Thursday, August 19.

Strong regulation of each step of coal’s dirty and dangerous life-cycle (from the reckless mining practices to the hazardous disposal of the toxic byproduct of the waste left over when coal is burned) is not only going to level the playing field between coal and clean energy, it is also to usher in a new era of American energy.

We know that continuing our dependence on coal chains us to dirty energy and prevents us from making the changes we need to bring about a clean, secure energy future. If our economy is to be revitalized by the clean-energy industry, if the health and safety of families is to be considered, if we want to have any hope of stopping the worst effects of climate change, King Coal’s reign cannot continue.

We have made unprecedented progress in recent years to prevent new coal plants and massive amounts of new pollution for decades into the future, but our work is not done. Whether it is pursuing federal legislation that will cut carbon pollution or pushing and supporting Lisa Jackson as she enforces the law to protect public health and our communities, we will continue the fight to move our country beyond coal.