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The Time for Coal Ash Regulation is Now

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How many people have to be sickened or killed before we get strong coal ash regulations in the U.S.? I ask this during a week very full of news on coal ash - the by-product of burning coal for power.

Our latest and biggest news is our notice today putting New Mexico's San Juan Coal Company on notice for failing to properly dispose of millions of tons of toxic coal ash and scrubber sludge each year.

"For years the San Juan Coal Company and others have dumped toxic waste into this mine without regard to what it was doing to those living downstream," said R.G. "Squeek" Hunt, a sheep farmer near the mine in Farmington, N.M. Mr. Hunt's water has been polluted by the dumping, causing illnesses in his family and killing hundreds of his sheep.

The San Juan Coal Company has dumped more than 40 million tons of coal combustion waste containing pollutants like arsenic, lead and mercury into massive unlined pits at the San Juan Mine, about 10 miles west of Farmington. As a result of the lack of safety precautions, toxins from the coal ash have leaked into nearby waterways and wells, endangering local residents, livestock, and wildlife - like the Hunt family has had to cope with.

We know that coal ash is becoming increasingly toxic, with harmful levels of arsenic, selenium and other pollutants; we know that those living near coal ash sites face an increased risk of cancer, damage the nervous and reproductive systems, and other serious illnesses.

At the San Juan site, testing has shown that the levels of arsenic, lead, selenium, uranium and many other toxins exceed safe levels in ground and surface water near the coal ash dump site.

And this isn't the first time for San Juan - previous unsafe dumping of coal combustion waste near the San Juan coal plant caused significant damage, forcing the owners of the plant to pay over a million dollars in damages for livestock killed and families made sick by drinking contaminated water.

Over the past years coal companies have been increasingly dumping burned coal waste in open coal mines, like the San Juan mine, as a way to avoid the costs of landfill disposal, liners, covers and monitoring to make sure toxins don't leak out. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that water supplies in 24 states have been contaminated from coal combustion waste that was disposed of without proper safeguards.This is why coal ash must be classified and regulated as hazardous waste.

But in case you needed another reason - we're just about to the one year anniversary of the devastating coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston plant. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee even held a hearing on it yesterday, as the cleanup continues but the news media has mostly moved on.

And today the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on coal combustion waste disposal and its relation to drinking water and public health.

Need more reasons for action? Important information, like inspection results and violation records, were withheld by many coal companies when EPA recently collected data. The Club and others have demanded that information be made public.

Also, the Mirant coal plant, just outside of DC, was put on notice for contamination at their Brandywine coal ash landfill (The landfill contains seven million cubic yards of coal combustion waste in multiple, unlined disposal cells - and it's leaking into a nearby wildlife sanctuary stream). Even Pennsylvania is in the midst of revising its own coal ash rules.

Yet the coal industry continues fighting for special treatment to keep them from cleaning up their dirty business. Coal use from cradle to the grave is dirty, dangerous, and damaging, and yet the coal industry is spending millions on lobbying to retain and create more loopholes for themselves.

We're grateful for some movement on the issue - such as today's House committee hearing, but we need strong, federal standards on coal ash. Coal ash should be classified as hazardous waste.