Thursday, September 16, 2010

Louisiana Activists Tell EPA: "Get Tough on Coal Ash"

Between September 7th and 9th, a group of vibrant, energetic individuals from Louisiana traveled with Sierra Club organizers Jordan Macha and Devin Martin to Dallas, Texas. The group stayed at the prestigious Hyatt Hotel overlooking the Dallas skyline, dined on local Tex-Mex fare, and mingled with activists from across the South. The weather was not sunny--remnants of Tropical Storm Hermine passed over the city for most of the day, and a group of volunteers even witnessed a violent tornado touch down and rip across the city from their 18th floor hotel window. The purpose of the trip, however, was not to socialize, chat about the weather, and pass a good time, although that inevitably happens anytime Delta Chapter Sierra Club members get together. People assembled at the Hyatt to attend an EPA public hearing on the issue of coal ash--specifically, whether or not the EPA should officially label coal ash as a hazardous material and regulate the use and disposal of it on a federal level.

Coal ash is the leftover waste product of burning coal, and the U.S. produces tons of it--131 million tons a year, to be exact. About half of this is "recycled" into products like concrete, bricks, and other construction materials. The other half gets disposed of in landfills, mixed with water and put into impoundments (sludge ponds), or simply dumped into local waterways like the Mississippi River. This is possible because coal ash is currently less regulated than household trash. For years, the coal industry has tried to convince people that coal ash is no more dangerous than the rocks or soil in your backyard. But new research has confirmed what environmental and community activists have stated for years: coal ash is toxic, and in nearly every single case where it is disposed, it is threatening communities and the environment.

People living near coal ash disposal sites are exposed to an environmental hazard equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Coal contains nearly every element on the periodic table, including lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium. When coal is burned, the carbon matrix that normally buffers these heavy metals is combusted and released into the air, adding the greenhouse gas CO2 to our atmosphere and leaving behind a concentrated toxic waste. In 2008, a large impoundment storing wet coal ash broke, spilling millions of cubic feet of coal sludge across the area near Harriman, Tennessee. This event spurred many to reconsider how we treat coal ash.

Fourteen Louisiana volunteers, mostly students and recent graduates eager to create a better future for themselves and their neighbors, took to the stand on September 8th to urge the EPA to carry out its mission of protecting human and environmental health by regulating coal ash as a hazardous material at a federal level. They were joined by more than a hundred other Sierra Club volunteers and community activists from several states and used personal stories and new research to get their message across--that people and the environment come before profits. With 11 coal ash landfills in Louisiana alone, our activists had a lot to talk about, from environmental justice issues to the risk of bio-accumulation of heavy metals in in the fish and wildlife of "Sportman's Paradise." Sadly, not everyone at the hearing agreed with this message, as several coal and concrete industry officials presented rather unconvincing arguments as to why the EPA shouldn't or couldn't properly regulate coal ash--arguments that mostly centered around the assumption that health-saving regulation would have a negative impact on their profits. As one woman exclaimed, to the applause of dozens of people in the audience, "you guys are talking about profits, and I'm talking about people!"

This trip would not have been possible without the tremendous help of members of the Society for Peace, Environment, Action, and Knowledge (SPEAK), a University of Louisiana at Lafayette environmental group, as well as the enthusiasm of members of ReConnect at Southeastern Louisiana University. Also, the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign was more than generous to provide the travel, lodging, and even some meal expenses to give people to opportunity to speak out. Next time, we hope to see you among the people who take it upon themselves to speak for the health of our families and our planet.
Image credit: Alan Morin/Citizens Coal Council/Hoosier Environmental Council

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