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Congress Gets in the Act on Coal Ash

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Kudos to Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) for bird-dogging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the need to regulate pollution from coal-fired power plants.  Yesterday, Rep. Markey sent a letter to EPA requesting information on the agency's findings related to the health and environmental risks posed by coal ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal for electricity which contains high levels of toxic substances like arsenic.

The EPA stepped up its assessment of coal ash in the wake of last year's disaster in Tennessee, in which a coal-fired power plant operated by the nation's largest public utility -- the Tennessee Valley Authority -- experienced a breach in one of its "wet" storage impoundments, sending over a billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge into the Emory River and the downstream community.  After years of delay and disinterest, the EPA has pledged to finally issue regulations for the disposal of this coal waste. 

Rep. Markey chairs a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that has jurisdiction over electricity generation and protection of drinking water.  In his letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Markey says that he is "deeply concerned about the risks posed by disposal of waste from coal-fired power plants" and that he supports "swift and vigorous action to protect public health and the environment."

NRDC is working with a broad coalition of environmental and health allies to bolster support in Congress on this important issue.  The EPA has identified 584 ponds, located in 35 states, which hold back hundreds of billions of gallons of coal waste.  These toxic sludge ponds are a threat to communities across the nation -- and it is long past time for federal regulations that will guarantee safe disposal and protection for all citizens.

How serious is this threat?  The EPA's data show clearly that coal ash, when mismanaged, poses severe risks to our health and environment.  The agency's 2007 risk assessment reveals that, at the worst facilities, people living near unlined coal ash impoundments have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic leaking from the sites.  Studies have shown that residents near such waste sites are more likely to be low income and communities of color. 

Damage to our health and the environment is also costly in economic terms, as evidenced by the $1.1 billion cost of the TVA cleanup in Kingston, Tennessee.  These conditions cannot be allowed to continue.  

Fortunately, the EPA can solve the problem and provide all Americans with necessary protection by phasing out coal ash ponds and promulgating federally enforceable regulations.

Please help by taking a moment to urge EPA to crack down on pollution from coal plants. 

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.