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Household Trash Is Managed Better than the TVA’s Coal Ash

Frances Beinecke

Posted January 8, 2009 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Solving Global Warming

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Americans have been assaulted on the airwaves with ads about so-called "clean coal." What happened in East Tennessee, where a breach of a coal ash pond at a power plant send a billion gallons of toxic sludge into nearby communities, proved once again just how false that myth is. But it also revealed something many Americans didn't know: our government has failed utterly to regulate the 1,300 coal ash dumps across the country.

The New York Times quoted a specialist as saying: "Your household garbage is managed much more consistently" than this toxic coal ash.

While your municipal government does a good job of handling your trash, the Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to protect Americans from hazardous waste. Coal ash fits the bill.

Coal ash is what's left over after the combustion process that produces electricity. It contains high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals such as cadmium and chromium. Among the greatest concerns is arsenic, which causes bladder, kidney, liver, lung, prostate, and skin cancer. Studies have shown that arsenic in the levels found in drinking water contaminated by coal ash raise cancer risks several hundred times.

I am a cancer survivor, and while my specific cancer is not on that list, I am outraged that our government's negligence is contributing to other people's cancer diagnosis and the fear and devastating treatment that goes with it.

Back in 2000, the EPA committed to developing national regulations for storing coal ash. But the coal and utility industries pushed back, complaining it would cost too much to take care of their own waste--the byproduct of making a profit. Since then, the agency has failed even to propose regulations, never mind enact them.

Meanwhile, communities around the nation remain vulnerable not just to explosive disasters like the one in Tennessee, but also to the slow poisoning of drinking water. In 2007, the EPA's own scientists identified 67 coal and oil ash dump sites that had contaminated groundwater and wells (see the map here.) Still the agency has done nothing to protect us.

It's time to change that. The EPA should designate coal ash as a hazard and establish strict pollution controls for all coal ash dumps. In the meantime, the TVA should provide free medical testing for all the families who request it in the region near the disaster. No one should become ill because of the TVA's or the EPA's failures.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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