KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Twenty Greenpeace and local community activists today held up enlarged photos of the coal ash disaster that occurred at nearby Kingston, Tennessee, in December 2008 in a silent vigil outside the hotel in Knoxville where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is holding its final public hearing about new federal standards to protect public health from toxic coal ash produced by coal-fired power plants.
Coal ash has been linked to ailments including cancer, respiratory illness and brain damage. The EPA has held seven earlier hearings across the country about whether to list coal ash as hazardous waste or set weak standards to contain the waste and consider it 'non-hazardous'. Activists, public health advocates, scientists and many elected officials want the EPA to list it as 'hazardous' and designate it ‘special waste' under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Their vigil today was to remind the EPA of the need to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2008 at the TVA-owned coal-fired power plant at Kingston, roughly 40 miles away. A retaining wall around an ash pond gave way releasing over a billion gallons of coal ash slurry that covered up to 300 acres, destroyed homes and contaminated the community.
“We know coal ash is toxic, we know it destroys communities, and we know that the coal industry has continued to push the EPA to do nothing about it,” said Greenpeace campaigner, Robert Gardner. "The EPA needs to stop dragging its feet. This is a national problem that demands a national response. People's lives are at risk yet there is less protection at coal ash dumps and waste ponds than at a normal landfill."
Forty-nine toxic coal ash sites in 34 states are listed by the EPA as "high hazard", where a breach in the impoundment could lead to "a significant loss of life." They are among more than 1,200 sites across the United States that are covered only by haphazard and inadequate state-level regulation. The EPA and environmental organizations have already identified 137 sites where damage such as drinking water contamination has already occurred.
Listing coal-burning wastes as 'hazardous' would require operators of coal ash dumps and waste ponds to introduce the level of protection currently required at waste landfills. This would include solid waste permits and use of readily available technologies, such as liners, and monitoring systems. Strong, federally enforceable standards would ensure much greater compliance and increase the likelihood of avoiding future spills and disasters, and the costs associated with their clean-up.
Coal-fired utilities have mounted an aggressive lobbying effort against a 'hazardous' listing, claiming it would prevent them selling coal ash for building materials, for instance.
"It is abundantly clear that coal companies are willing to put their profit above human and environmental welfare,” said Robert Gardner of Greenpeace. "It's time the EPA ignored their lobbying and put federal standards in place to make sure another Kingston tragedy doesn’t happen,” he added.
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