Profit Over People Wins Again – EPA Sides with Industry on Toxic Coal Combustion Waste
“War on Coal” Proponents Rejoice! Recently the EPA threw a giant bone to the coal and power industries by regulating coal combustion waste as solid waste instead of the hazardous waste that it actually is. The EPA’s recent implementation of CCW regulations are the culmination of a nearly decade-long political fight over the regulation of coal combustion waste that required a lawsuit to force the EPA to take any action at all. In essence, coal combustion waste, or CCW, is the residual dust and ash that is left over after coal is burned to produce electric power. CCW is an amalgam of heavy metals, such as arsenic, mercury, chromium (including the highly toxic and carcinogenic chromium VI), lead, selenium, molybdenum, antimony, nickel, boron, cadmium, thallium, cobalt, copper, manganese, strontium, thorium, vanadium and others. In addition to toxic metals, CCW also contains other materials that are hazardous to human health including dioxins, PCBs and radionuclides. CCW is comprised of small and “ultrafine” particles, the very smallest of which are inhaled into the deepest part of the lungs where they trigger inflammation and immunological reactions.
Some of these particles gain access to the human circulatory system where they are transported to distant organs like the heart, brain and other organs, where they settle and produce disease and cancer. Here in the Ohio Valley, we are certainly no strangers to coal-fired power plants. The Ohio Valley has perhaps the greatest concentration of coal-burning plants in the entire country. Ironically, as pollution controls, like electrostatic precipitators and baghouse filters, have become more effective at trapping coal ash from being spewed into the air, and have reduced the coal plant air pollution that blows into neighboring states, the waste being dumped into coal ash waste streams is becoming more concentrated, and hence more toxic for those of us who live in the shadow of these plants. Whether blown from an uncovered dump site or the back of an open truck or leached or dumped into our public waterways and drinking water supplies, toxic CCW contaminates hundreds of communities across the country and presents significant health risks to the public. On December 22, 2008, 5.4 million cubic yards of coal combustion waste from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plant in Kingston, Tenn. spilled over into neighborhoods and waterways near Knoxville. This catastrophic spill prompted the EPA to assess coal ash surface impoundments and gather information from facilities managing coal ash nationwide with an eye towards possibly regulating coal combustion waste as a hazardous material, which would have brought much-needed protection to communities like our Ohio Valley. Of course such regulations were staunchly resisted by big energy, with its billion-dollar war chest and armies of lobbyists and lawyers, who fought tooth and nail to avoid having to clean up its mess. In the end, Big Energy prevailed, and not only will it not be made to clean up after itself, but the EPA regulations effectively greenlit the energy industry’s current practice of “recycling” this coal combustion waste into products like drywall, toothpaste and winter road cinders that it sells for profit at the continued expense of human health. Coal combustion waste from existing coal power plants causes some 13,200 premature deaths per year, as well as 9,700 additional hospitalizations and 20,000 heart attacks. Sadly, West Virginia, the state with the highest reliance on coal for electricity production, ranks first in mortality risk
at over 20 deaths per 100,000 individuals. The EPA’s decision practically guarantees that we will remain at the top of that mortality list for the foreseeable future.