THE BLOG
04/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Black Water Rafting: When Will the EPA Enforce Coal Ash Laws in Alabama?

What is the EPA's excuse now? Waiting for more torrential rain to host Olympic Black Water rafting competitions?

As heavy rains and snow worsen landfill conditions, this is the sentiment of besieged residents in Perry County, Alabama, who have been designated as the official keepers of toxic coal ash from the nation's worst environmental disaster -- the TVA coal ash pond break in 2008.

Two weeks ago, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released a startling study that found that the EPA had allowed coal ash industry representatives to blatantly rewrite and water-down the potential dangers of coal ash in official government reports. PEER concluded:

During the Bush administration, EPA entered into a formal partnership with the coal industry, most prominently, the American Coal Ash Association, to promote coal combustion wastes for industrial, agricultural and consumer product uses. This effort has helped grow a multi-billion dollar market which the industry worries would be crimped by a hazardous waste designation.

The documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act show how this partnership gave the coal ash industry a chance to change a variety of EPA draft publications and presentations, including -

Removal of "cautionary language" about application of coal combustion wastes on agricultural lands in an EPA brochure to be replaced with "exclamation point ! language" "re-affirming the environmental benefits...that reinforces the idea that FGD [flue gas desulfurization] gypsum is a good thing" in the word of an American Coal Ash Association representative;

A draft of EPA's 2007 Report to Congress caused industry to lobby for insertion of language about the need for "industry and EPA [to] work together" to weaken or block "state regulations [that] are hindering progress" for greater use of the coal combustion wastes; and
EPA fact-sheets and PowerPoint presentations were altered at industry urging to delete significant references to certain potential "high risk" uses of coal combustion wastes.

"For most of the past decade, it appears that every EPA publication on the subject was ghostwritten by the American Coal Ash Association," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who examined thousands of industry-EPA communications. "In this partnership it is clear that industry is EPA's senior partner.

That was then -- the Bush administration. This is now -- the Obama administration.

Last year, the Obama administration released a previously held Bush administration EPA study on coal ash that demonstrated the clear dangers of coal ash, including cancer. Among many issues, the EPA concluded:

The coal ash threat could linger for 100 years -- Because some of the EPA data go back to the mid-1990s, it is possible that some of the listed dumps are no longer in use. The EPA warns, however, that peak pollution from ash ponds can occur long after the waste is placed and is likely to result in peak exposures about 78 to 105 years after the pond first began operation.

- Higher cancer risk for up to 1 in 50 nearby residents -- The EPA estimates that up to 1 in 50 nearby residents could get cancer from exposure to arsenic leaking into drinking water wells from unlined waste ponds that mix ash with coal refuse. Threats are also posed by high levels of other metals, including boron, selenium and lead.

In a formal complaint lodged yesterday with the EPA, Alabama Hurricane Creekkeeper John Wathen charged the formal agreement with EPA and TVA says no ash can be shipped to any landfill that does not meet compliance standards.

Wathen and Perry County residents called on the EPA "to immediately halt the dredging of the Emory River in Kingston, Tennessee -- and hauling wet TVA coal ash to the Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County, Alabama -- until the landfill comes into full compliance with state and federal laws."

"We therefore respectfully request that EPA order a complete stopping of disaster ash to Perry County until this landfill is in complete compliance as certified by EPA national headquarters," Mr. Wathen writes in the letter.

"EPA Region 4 and ADEM have failed us," he says. "The situation here grows more dire with every rain event. Excessive water in the landfill is causing off-site violations, some intentional it seems."

Here are the photographs from Wathen that show pumps diverting liquid waste off the landfill property into adjoining ditches near residential homes:

"Up to now, both EPA and ADEM are taking the operators word that no violations exist," he says. "I am presenting you now with overwhelming evidence that this landfill is not and has never been in complete compliance since the disaster ash started coming."

Here are some concerned residents:

According to Wathen,"arsenic and other pollutants of concern have been reported to EPA and ADEM, but no action has been taken."

Collection of material in the ditch has rendered two separate arsenic levels that exceed EPA safe drinking water standards, Wathen says, and one value much higher than the water quality criterion for aquatic life.

"While people do not drink from the ditch," he concedes, "it leads through private land where farm animals do drink from the surface water."

Mr. Wathen says EPA and ADEM have produced no reports showing evidence that any oversight has been conducted by the federal and state agencies charged with that by law. There are no reports of agency sampling or toxic releases data for the required inventory.

"I personally informed Mr. John Hagood, interim director ADEM, of these illicit night time discharges but he has chosen not to investigate," Wathen says. "Instead, all the report says is that Mr. Cook, landfill manager denies the claim. No tests, no samples, no interviews of employees or nearby residents effected, just a simple denial by the manager was good enough to refute hundreds of photos, certified lab results, anecdotal stories from the community, or first hand eye witness account by me."

For more information, see: http://creekkeeper.blogspot.com/