News / USA

Coal Ash Waste Dusts Neighborhoods

Residents fear contamination from toxins linked to cancer

This former nursing home - which was purchased by FirstEnergy Corporation for the company’s proposed expansion project - overlooks the Little Blue Run waste ash dump. The chemicals give it a blue tint.
This former nursing home - which was purchased by FirstEnergy Corporation for the company’s proposed expansion project - overlooks the Little Blue Run waste ash dump. The chemicals give it a blue tint.

Multimedia

Audio
Rosanne Skirble

At the top of a hill tucked into a rural farming community of Pennsylvania is an abandoned red wooden barn-like house. John Reed was fixing it up, but never moved in. His mother Barbara checks on the property regularly and says John's dream home became a nightmare after his well-water showed high traces of arsenic two years ago. "We no longer drink the water. And he has quit working on his place, and he's now living with us."

Too close for comfort

John Reed's property is 900 meters upwind from a 526-hectare industrial waste pond called Little Blue Run. FirstEnergy Corporation pumps three million tons of scrubber waste - including coal ash - from the local power plant into Little Blue each year. It has done so since 1975.

Reed believes her son has reason to worry because "arsenic is poison." The toxins in coal ash have been linked to cancer, organ failure and other serious health problems.

John Reed is still paying his mortgage, but he doesn't plan to move into his home anytime soon.  FirstEnergy has been buying up properties nearby including a nursing home, which looks directly over the toxic pond. It now sits vacant with a padlock on the front door.

'In Harm's Way'

Lisa Marcucci, an outreach worker in Pennsylvania for the Environmental Integrity Project, contributed to a new report on the nation's contaminated coal ash sites called "In Harms Way."

She says Little Blue Run was singled out as one of the worst among 39 sites in 22 states. Environmental advocates from Environmental Integrity Project, the  Sierra Club and Earth Justice document each site with records from public files. In the case of Little Blue, According to Marcucci, the company's own records show that - in 2007 and again this year - Little Blue had 10 monitoring wells that spiked pretty high levels for arsenic.

When her son’s well water tested positive for arsenic, Barbara Reed became an advocate for tighter controls on the waste from coal-fired power plants.
When her son’s well water tested positive for arsenic, Barbara Reed became an advocate for tighter controls on the waste from coal-fired power plants.

"It seems to me that it should be a very clear signal that there are problems at that site," Marcucci says.

FirstEnergy came to test John Reed's well and then re-tested it.  According to company spokesman Mark Durbin, the second tests "showed barely a trace of arsenic." Pennsylvania State Department of Environmental Protection reported similar findings.

Lisa Marcucci says Reed deserves to know more. If FirstEnergy and the Pennsylvania State Department of Environmental Protection are using different documents than those in public file rooms, "They need to explain what set of data are they using, what scientists are they consulting and how are they coming to a determination that there's not a problem," she says. "To just say to people, 'don't worry about it, we're minding the store' isn't good enough. In every case the state and the utility company seem to dismiss the concerns as 'Oh, yes! We're monitoring that. We're on top of it,' but there's never anything seemingly being done beyond the 'We're monitoring' stage."

The 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, which sent 4.1 billion liters of toxic waste into the Emory River, was the impetus for proposed federal controls on coal ash disposal.
The 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, which sent 4.1 billion liters of toxic waste into the Emory River, was the impetus for proposed federal controls on coal ash disposal.

No federal controls

What concerns Lisa Marcucci and co-worker Lisa Widawsky, an attorney with Environmental Integrity Project, is that there are no federal controls over coal ash, the waste from 600 coal-fired power plants across the country.

"Twenty states have no coal ash regulation at all and that's just of the states that we've looked into so far," says Widawsky. "Among the ones that do have regulations, they're really a patchwork. Some states require ground water monitoring. Some states require some form of corrective action. No state has the whole package."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed two regulatory options. One would label coal ash a hazardous waste, subject to strict federal rules. The other would put coal ash under the same EPA category as household trash and allow states to govern compliance.

In his testimony at an EPA hearing in Crystal City, Virginia, near Washington, DC, Thomas Adams, Executive Director of the American Coal Ash Association told the panel of regulators that calling coal ash hazardous would do more than good to the $9 billion coal-ash industry. "In an effort to create disposal regulations EPA has created a serious potential threat to one of the most successful recycling stories of this generation."

'Hazardous' label

Coal industry lobbyist Jim Roewer is executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group. He adds that coal ash has been safely mixed into concrete, wall board, road paving, vinyl tiles and dozens of other products for decades.  He says relabeling it "hazardous" would kill efforts to recycle it responsibly. "Imagine, if you had the option to buy a product that has fly ash in it or something that doesn't contain fly ash in it, you'd likely not buy the material containing fly ash." Roewer says many state regulatory agencies have laws on the books that say, "If a material is a hazardous waste it can't be beneficially used."

Coal ash from a massive coal ash site in Bokoshe, Oklahoma runs off into grazing fields. No federal rules govern waste disposal from the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants.
Coal ash from a massive coal ash site in Bokoshe, Oklahoma runs off into grazing fields. No federal rules govern waste disposal from the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants.

Roewer says companies that sell recycled coal ash products are already feeling the pinch. "We've seen funding dry up for projects, recycling efforts. We've seen people refuse fly ash in concrete because of the potential that that it is going to be regulated as a hazardous waste by EPA."

Lisa Widawsky with the Environmental Integrity Project doesn't buy that argument. She says safely recycled coal ash would not be regulated by the new rule. "No regulation at all will apply to beneficial reuses. Therefore, approved beneficial re-uses, which could include putting this stuff in roads or concrete, there would be no regulation at all. So that really wouldn't cost the states anything. They would be able to continue and they could continue business as usual as long as the reuses that they are engaging in are safe."

Lisa Widawsky says she not waging an attack against coal, and its beneficial reuses, but instead fighting for federally enforceable safeguards - disposal permits, water monitoring, pond liners, and transport controls - to protect people and the environment."

Curt Havens let the vegetables in his garden rot, rather than harvest them for fear the ground water was contaminated.
Curt Havens let the vegetables in his garden rot, rather than harvest them for fear the ground water was contaminated.

Stricter regulation

Retirees Debby and Curt Havens support the stricter federal rule.  

They live downwind from Little Blue Run in Pennsylvania and say it's not unusual to see powdery white coal ash on their grass and flowers. Curt even dug up his vegetable garden this summer rather than reap the harvest, fearing contamination. The couple has begun to speak out on the issue. They've joined a citizens' group and attend public meetings aimed at holding utility companies, state agencies and elected officials accountable.

Lisa Marcucci with the Public Integrity Project believes their story can make a difference. "We want people to know that these are real humans with real lives, real families who are on the front line of this national crisis. I'm hoping that starts to at least open up a more fruitful dialogue about why we need federal rules."

After a period of public comment that ends in November, EPA is expected to release its final ruling.

You May Like

Video Analysts: Beijing Parade a 'Bazaar' of Stolen Technology

Show commemorating victory over Japan in World War II involved long, medium and short range missiles, a range of tanks and 200 fighter aircraft More

Bernie Sanders Surge Reflects US Shift on Socialism

Although most analysts say it is unlikely he will get the Democratic nomination, Sanders' campaign opens up questions and issues that are otherwise marginalized More

Video On IS Frontline, Kurdish Fighters Ready for Offensive

Peshmerga soldiers say although they need more heavy artillery, they are poised to take the fight to the Islamic State extremists on their turf More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outragei
X
Henry Ridgwell
September 04, 2015 11:36 AM
The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outrage

The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Russians Observe 11th Anniversary of Beslan School Attack

This week, Russians have been observing the 11th anniversary of the attack by Islamic militants on a school in Russia's North Caucasus region that killed more than 330 hostages, including 186 children. The three-day siege and massacre that started on September 1, 2004 took place in Beslan, a town in the republic of North Ossetia, and is one of the bloodiest terrorist acts ever in Russia. VOA's Mike Richman reports.
Video

Video Native Americans Debate: Father Serra, Saint or Sinner?

Pope Francis will canonize an 18th century missionary to Spanish California during a papal visit to the United States this month.  But some Native Americans have criticized the elevation to sainthood of the missionary priest, Junipero Serra. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan has more from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video China Announces Troop Cuts at WWII Parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday announced plans to cut the world’s largest military force by 300,000 troops. The announcement was made during a massive military parade to commemorate victory over Japan in World War II. The event was shunned by most Western leaders and for some is raising fresh concerns about China’s military ambitions. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

VOA Blogs