"When I learned about one of the Environmental Protection Agency's coal ash waste risk assessments stating that living near a wet coal ash pond was significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, my heart just dropped. It is incomprehensible that in 2016 corporate companies are still allowed to expose the public, especially our children, to such health risks."
That's an excerpt from testimony by Dulce Ortiz, who lives in Waukegan, Illinois, a loving, tight-knit community on the shores of Lake Michigan that is home to an aging coal plant and other industrial sites. Dulce was recently invited to testify before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is holding hearings as part of its investigation into how the Environmental Protection Agency has handled environmental justice discrimination claims filed under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act. Dulce spoke at a hearing in Washington, D.C. that focused on coal ash, the toxic waste left produced when coal is burned in power plants, which includes dangerous substances like mercury, arsenic, and cadmium.
Like many coal plants, NRG's coal plant in Waukegan dumped its coal ash on site for decades, right next to Lake Michigan. . The NRG coal ash ponds in Waukegan, and each of its coal ash ponds in Illinois, continue to contribute to on-going groundwater contamination. In December 2014, the EPA finally put the first-ever federal standards for coal ash disposal in place. Unfortunately, while the standards aren't strong enough to protect Dulce's community, they are still under attack in Congress.
Here's how Dulce describes the problem:
"The contents of the final U.S. EPA coal ash rule were disappointing. Coal ash is a hazardous waste and should be regulated as such. Vulnerable communities like Waukegan suffer the most when protections aren't strong enough. The final rule leaves enforcement largely up to citizens. Many of the residents in my community are immigrants, work multiple low-paying jobs, and often lack a college education. Looking through technical documents on NRG's coal ash website, which is difficult to find, is not something most of the people in my community have the time, expertise, or even awareness to do. This is the definition of environmental injustice."
Inadequate as these protections may be, they do require all owners and operators of landfills and coal ash ponds to monitor groundwater to ensure that leaks are immediately detected and that contamination is addressed at once. Also, every state has the same level of protection for drinking water under the rule, including stringent groundwater monitoring and cleanup requirements when contamination by coal ash occurs. And the EPA requires public posting of data on groundwater monitoring data, cleanup plans, inspections, structural stability assessments and dust control plans.
So as communities like Waukegan work to navigate these inadequate new protections, Congress is busily trying to strike them down. The House already passed a bill last summer called H.R.1734 - Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act of 2015. The bill from Congressman David McKinley of West Virginia rolls back most of the protections found in the new rule. The week, the Senate will start to consider S. 244 - the "Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act of 2016" introduced by senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), which threatens health, safety, and the environment while relieving owners of coal-fired power plants of their responsibility to safely dispose of the toxic coal ash they generate. Both bills greatly increase the potential for harm to communities by removing critical and long-awaited safeguards established by the new coal ash rule.
Meanwhile, community leaders like Dulce will keep fighting for their families and communities. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' State Advisory Committee will hold additional civil rights hearings on coal ash and environmental justice in Illinois later this month and community leaders will be there, seeking justice.
I'll leave Dulce with the final word, to describe what's at stake, and what's possible:
"The vision I have for my family and for my community does not include thousands of tons of air, water, and coal ash pollution. My vision for my family and community is a lakefront where I can take my son swimming in the water without worrying about toxic water pollution; where we can go fishing without worry about mercury and PCB contamination of the fish we catch. My vision for my family and community is a lakefront with open space that respects our environment, where corporate profit does not override the health needs of our families; where I can go running along the shore of Lake Michigan without worrying about my asthma. I want to see a clean energy future for Waukegan and all communities that have borne the burden of air, water and coal ash pollution for decades."