06/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Coal Industry Loophole One Step Closer to Being Closed

This post is co-written by Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, and Lyndsay Moseley, Washington Representative for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.

Recently the Sierra Club, along with a coalition of more than 100 organizations signed a letter calling on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson to move quickly to develop strong regulations for the handling and disposal of coal combustion waste to prevent a repeat event like the December 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash disaster in Kingston, Tenn.

This disaster demonstrated first hand how the coal industry has enjoyed a giant loophole for far too long. Under this loophole, they get to store billions of gallons of highly hazardous waste in a less responsible manner than household waste has to be treated.

Our letter outlined 12 key principles including the phase-out of wet storage facilities all together. The coal ash storage sites like the one that breached in Kingston are a tremendous threat, as demonstrated in an extensive EPA report unveiled by the Environmental Integrity Project: "An EPA risk assessment documents excess cancer risks of up to 1 in 50 for residents living near unlined ash ponds."

This week, we received a response from Administrator Jackson that outlines some of the steps EPA has already begun to take regarding coal combustion waste, including a survey of structural integrity of existing impoundments. Jackson reiterated her intent that EPA is committed to developing regulations by the end of the year, and indicated that she will consider our input in developing those regulations. 

Jackson's response is encouraging, but we will need to continue to provide positive pressure to encourage EPA to develop strong regulations that will adequately protect human health and the environment.  Many of the key decisions about the regulation will be made in the coming months, and we will continue to meet with EPA officials as well as key members of Congress to enlist their support in encouraging the development strong regulations.

To add insult to injury, the coal ash waste cleaned up from the Harriman site is being sent to low income communities in Georgia and Alabama. Low income communities and people of color too often bear the burden of hazardous waste and polluting industrial plants. EPA needs to stop this practice immediately. Environmental organizations and citizens alike must remain vigilant during these cleanup processes and hold the companies and government accountable for the disposal and storage of hazardous waste like coal ash. The Sierra Club will not stop pushing until this giant loophole is closed and the coal industry has to manage its waste responsibly.

(In some late-breaking great news -- Ohio State University President Gordon Gee has bowed to pressure from Sierra Club and many other groups who'd sent him a letter asking him to resign from the board of coal company Massey Energy. Citizens are paying attention and holding people accountable.

Read more at You can also see the letter that we sent to Dr. Gee here.)