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

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network 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.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs