10/27/2010 02:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This Ain't No Farmville

The recent profiles published in the Sierra Club's Compass blog of communities affected by toxic coal-ash waste sites can make grim reading. Some excerpts:

Chester, WV: "With no family history of thyroid problems, her endocrinologist has assessed that environmental exposure as the cause and told her, 'You need to move or you will never survive this stuff.'" 

Bokoshe, OK: "Dozens of people in Bokoshe have died of cancer or are battling it right now, and children with asthma wake up in the middle of the night, struggling to breathe, afraid that they're going to die."

Colstrip, MT: "After watching a deer refuse to drink water from a reservoir on a hot summer day last August, Colstrip, Montana area ranchers knew something was wrong. The water, found to contain toxic levels of sulfates, was traced back to a coal ash dump."

Riverside Gardens, KY: "Resident Terri Humphrey expressed a common sentiment when she told a community meeting, 'I believe the companies think that it's already so bad down there that it doesn't matter if they dump something else on us.'"

Coal ash is laced with dozens of toxic chemicals like mercury, selenium, lead, and arsenic. Last week, I toured a local community located next to a coal ash dump outside Asheville, NC -- you could see the ash from the dump site coating the siding and windowsills on houses up and down the street. When it rains, the poisons from the dump site can migrate into local drinking water supplies. Imagine if an international terrorist organization injected arsenic into our drinking water. It'd be an act of war. But for coal-burning utilities, it's just part of the business.

What's even more scary is that most of us live a lot closer to a toxic coal-ash waste site than we realize. There are more than 2,000 of these toxic sites, after all -- all over the country. More than 600 of them are "wet dump" sites like the one that failed catastrophically in Kingston, Tennessee, two years ago -- and forty-nine of those are considered so hazardous that the EPA believes an accident would result in the loss of human life.

So we should all be glad that the people in coal-ash communities are fighting back. The EPA has been holding public hearings around the country since August 30th on how coal-ash waste should be regulated. (Currently, household garbage is regulated more strictly than coal-ash waste.) Not surprisingly, people from communities already affected by toxic coal ash have packed these hearings. I attended the one in Dallas, and people came from Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and all across Texas, in spite of torrential downpours and floods.

But the folks on the front lines need help from the rest of us. Coal-ash waste may be a local issue, but it's a nationwide local issue. We need to spread the outrage of the people who have been immediately affected to everyone who's at risk -- which includes a lot of people who don't even know yet what toxic coal ash is.

So, besides sending your own comment on coal-ash waste directly to the EPA, why not take a moment to let your friends on Facebook know that you've got their backs? The Sierra Club's Coal Ash Tool will show you which of your Facebook friends live near toxic coal-ash sites -- and make it easy for you both to alert them and tell them how to take action. Because, in this case, what your friends don't know could someday hurt them.