Every year, the nation’s coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution, the toxic by-product that is left over after the coal is burned. All that ash has to go somewhere, so it’s dumped in the backyards of power plants across the nation, into open-air pits and precarious surface waste ponds. Many of these sites lack adequate safeguards, leaving nearby communities at risk from potential large-scale disasters like the massive coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008, and from gradual yet equally dangerous contamination as coal ash toxins seep into drinking water sources or are blown into nearby communities.
Coal ash pollution contains high levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, and hexavalent chromium. The public health hazards and environmental threats to nearby communities from unsafe coal ash dumping have been known for many years, including increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma, and other illnesses.
Coal ash is not subject to federal protections, and state laws governing coal combustion waste disposal are usually weak or non-existent. The result: millions of tons of coal ash are being stored in ponds, landfills, and abandoned mines.
Photo Credit: Juan Silva/Getty Images
To: Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator
Along with all 2.1 million Sierra Club members and supporters, I urge the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize zero-discharge water pollution standards to limit the amount of toxic metals that can be dumped into our waters from power plants.
By requiring coal plants to move hazardous coal ash with dry systems, rather than with water, the EPA can eliminate millions of gallons of dangerous ash wastewater every year. Smokestack scrubber sludge can also be treated using zero-discharge systems, and certainly requires at least biological and chemical treatment to remove toxic heavy metals like selenium, arsenic, mercury, and lead.
The Environmental Protection Agency's strongest proposed approach is sensible, affordable, and already being used by some coal plants. Limiting the amount of pollution in our water will save lives, prevent children from getting sick, and ensure our water is safe to drink and our fish safe to eat. It should be finalized and put into force as soon as possible.
[Your name here]
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