New Jersey may not be a coal state, but the pollution from coal surrounds us. The prevalence of coal fired power plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio pollutes the air we breathe and the water we drink in many ways. One of the most tragic incidences was the coal ash spill in the Delaware River a few years ago.
Coal ash is the by-product of burning coal for electricity, and it contains a long list of dangerous toxins. More than 150 million tons of coal ash are created each year and dumped into thousands of ponds and dumps nationwide, many of which are less regulated than a regular garbage dump.
In August 2005 a blow out of the storage basin at PPL's Martin's Creek plant in Lower Mount Bethel Township, Pennsylvania released 100 million gallons of fly ash and contaminated water into the Delaware River. The Delaware River provides drinking water for approximately one third of New Jersey's municipalities, mostly in Central and South Jersey. This leak contaminated our drinking water and shut down tourism in the region. There are many towns along the Delaware who depend on the river — which has a Wild and Scenic designation — for tourism, fishing, and recreation.
The leak in the Delaware has since been eclipsed by the larger more devastating disaster at the TVA plant in Tennessee in December 2009. An impoundment broke releasing a flood of 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic-laden wet coal ash sludge into the local community. These two incidents are not anomalies. More than 100 waterways have already been polluted, and the number is growing.
Coal plants dot the banks of the Delaware and Hudson Rivers and can all be a threat to our water if there is an incident. The lax regulations governing how coal fired power plants like these dispose of their waste plants put thousands of New Jersey residents and Americans at risk. Coal ash contains heavy metals like arsenic, selenium, lead and mercury. Without adequate protection, coal ash toxins leak out of the waste and contaminate groundwater and surface water.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the very real health and environmental risks posed by toxic coal ash and just proposed new rules to protect communities and ensure the safe disposal of coal ash.
EPA proposed two options and is seeking public comment on both. One would continue the status quo — establishing suggested state guidelines, not federally enforceable rules. The other would recognize that coal ash is substantially more dangerous than household garbage and would regulate it as the toxic substance it is, protecting public health and waterways across the country.
Effective coal ash regulations must require basic protections for communities such as composite liners, water run-off controls, groundwater monitoring, and financial assurance that companies pay to clean up what they pollute. Only strong federal safeguards can ensure this happens across the country.
EPA and the National Academy of Sciences have years of research making it clear that coal ash is becoming an increasingly toxic threat to human health. Studies have shown that these dirty waste sites are so toxic that they can increase your cancer risk to as high as a staggering 1 in 50, that's 2,000 times higher than what EPA considers acceptable.
Despite the growing body of evidence about the harmful impacts of these ash sites, the coal industry has yet to be held accountable for exposing communities to these risks. The industry has been allowed to go completely unregulated in some states and get off easy in others where officials bought in to the industry "clean coal" line.
It is critical that EPA adopt consistent mandatory federal safeguards to prevent future coal ash disasters --- safeguards that will protect the environment and our communities from toxic leaking and flooding.
We must speak out in favor of treating coal ash as the toxic waste that it is, and encourage EPA to quickly implement the strong federal safeguards to protect our communities from coal ash.
Jeff Tittel is the Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and Tracy Carluccio is the Deputy Director of the Delaware River Keeper Network