Senate Democrats Call for Stricter Toxics Rules After Coal-Ash Disaster

  • Published on January 9th, 2009

Coal Fired Power Plant

[This is a guest post by Caitlin Sislin, a public interest environmental attorney in Oakland, California and founder of the Transformative Advocacy program of Women’s Earth Alliance.]

On Thursday, a group of senate democrats responded to what may be the largest coal-related disaster in history by calling for more stringent rules on toxic byproducts from coal-fired power plants. Senator Barbara Boxer led the charge, condemning federal rulemakers for their “inaction” and demanding a stronger regulatory regime, which would include broader oversight of power plants by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The December 22, 2008 disaster, which began when an earthen dike broke at Tennessee’s Kingston Coal Plant, caused over 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal-ash sludge from a 40-acre settlement pond to flow onto several hundred acres of surrounding land near Knoxville, TN. The spill threatens the immediate health and safety of the community and the local environment, blanketing the area with mercury- and lead-laden sludge up to 9 feet deep in some areas, and jeopardizes the region’s drinking water source, the Emory River.

Despite the well-established health risks to humans — including heavy metal poisoning and respiratory illness — from exposure to coal byproducts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided in 2000 that it would not regulate coal-ash as a hazardous waste, and handed this issue off to the states. But most states do a poor job of regulating coal-fired power plants, and monitoring is often conducted on a voluntary basis by the utility companies who own and run the plants. Many states, for example, don’t regulate the common practice of sluicing coal waste into unlined ponds, which can easily leak and contaminate shallow aquifers with dangerous chemicals. And the last time EPA conducted a nationwide examination of coal-ash management practices was in 1993.

All of that may be about to change if Boxer, whose committee oversees EPA, follows through on her word. At Thursday’s senate hearing, she said that it is “critically important that protective standards for coal-ash waste be created.” Will we actually see this kind of substantial move towards proactive environmental protection, and away from the current agency culture of industry cronyism, anti-science politics, and inertia, in President Obama’s EPA? That remains to be seen. But we do know that federal lawmakers must take concerted action on pollution, now. As enticing as the idea of ‘clean coal’ may be, coal is coal, and the dirty stuff doesn’t just disappear. Our elected representatives need to start watching where it goes.

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Image credit: Berd Whitlock on Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.

About the Author

A public interest environmental attorney in Oakland, CA, Caitlin has worked with NRDC, Earthjustice, the California Center for Environmental Law & Policy, and the Center for Human Rights and Environment in Argentina. At U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, Caitlin chaired the Environmental Law Society and coordinated the first annual Environmental Justice Symposium. Her article “Exempting Department of Defense from Federal Hazardous Waste Laws: Resource Contamination as 'Range Preservation” was published in Ecology Law Quarterly, one of the nation’s foremost environmental law journals. Caitlin's poem entitled “The Nation Waits” appears in Imagining Ourselves, an anthology of women's art and writing published by the International Museum of Women. Caitlin is the Transformative Advocacy director at Women's Earth Alliance, where she works to convene women attorneys and other professionals with women leaders working on environmental justice issues for international journeys of conscious dialogue, experiential learning, and appropriate advocacy.

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