CG Column: Coal ash poses many risks, needs federal oversight

By CG Commentary Editor Lane Robbins

What I know about coal production is that it’s dirty and a major contributor to pollution and global warming. But, as I found out recently, it gets much worse.

On Thursday, I attended the citizen-sponsored coal ash hearing at Ohio University, which was endorsed by Beyond Coal, the Sierra Club and Meigs Citizens Action Now. The coal industry must do something with all the ash from the coal they burn, but there’s no good place to put it.

Coal ash is a toxic, sludge-like byproduct of burning coal and there are four coal ash sites in Ohio. This toxic material is stored in precarious surface waste ponds, impoundments and abandoned mines. The levels of arsenic seeping from coal ash sites can be one thousand times higher than what is considered a “safe” level for drinking water. The U.S. EPA has found that living near a wet coal ash storage pond is more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes every day.

People living within one mile of unlined coal ash ponds can have cancer rates as high as one in fifty, two thousand times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable. Toxins in coal ash have also been linked to organ disease, respiratory illness, neurological damage and developmental problems. Children are particularly susceptible.

And need I mention the environmental effects of coal mining and coal ash storage? They include destroying forests and wildlife habitats, promoting soil erosion and flooding, causing land collapse and burying valleys and streams.

At the hearing, Elisa Young of Meigs Citizen Action Now discussed her personal experience with coal ash. Young has had cancer and some of her neighbors have as well.

Instead of regular gravel, coal ash is used on the roads in Young’s town. When the ash is crushed, it becomes a fine powder that floats into the air.  Coal ash is now in the area’s waterways and covers the farmlands.

The EPA has introduced Subtitle C as a potential federal regulation for coal ash. Subtitle C would monitor coal ash cradle to grave. However, there are some loopholes in it such as the “beneficial use” clause, which allows for the continued use of coal ash in products such as drywall, cosmetics, countertops, concrete and road deicer. Even with all its problems, Subtitle C is still a step in the right direction.

Subtitle D is an alternate option offered by the EPA that relies heavily on suggested state guidelines. It lets the coal industry to monitor itself. Such “regulations” have caused the current environmental crisis. The last thing we need is more of the same.

Click here to see the differences between Subtitle C and Subtitle D.

The coal industry has been fighting strong regulations on coal ash. They have mobilized members of Congress and federal and state environmental agencies to speak out in support of voluntary regulations such as Subtitle D.

Today there will be a meeting with Elisa Young, from 4-6 p.m. at United Campus Ministries, located at 18 N. College St. in Athens, Ohio. There, visitor can write letters to the EPA in support of stronger coal ash oversight. I encourage all concerned citizens to go.

Coal ash disposal is a serious problem in Ohio. It is a toxic substance that must be disposed of properly with strong federal regulations. Otherwise, it will continue to harm people and contribute to the early, painful deaths of those forced to live with it.