Death and Displacement in America: the EPA Decision

Paw prints from a cat on a LaBelle, PA windowsill. Tests revealed the dust is 100% coal ash.

When Yma Smith first started noticing the discoloration on her home, the damage on her roof, and the dust collecting on her shutters, she had no idea it was coal ash. But many of the coal miners in her area knew, and were concerned. And after years of declining health and worsening safety precautions around coal ash disposal sites, the cause of Smith’s troubles became clear – at least she certainly thinks so.

Residents of affected areas like LaBelle and Greene Township have tried to raise some awareness of their desperate situations, and numerous community groups, environmental lawyers and activists, and political organizations have risen up around the country, with various motives, to demand better regulations over the coal industry.

The EPA has begun looking into two options regarding coal ash: Subtitle C and Subtitle D.

Subtitle C is a form of EPA regulation for hazardous wastes already in effect as part of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Because coal ash is not currently considered hazardous waste, the EPA can not and does not step in for people claiming to be hurt by coal ash.

That doesn’t mean they are totally defenseless: citizens are expected and able to pursue lawsuits, and many have been successful, but this seems to happen after the fact. I personally would rather live lawsuit-free than get some money after my whole family dies of preventable cancer.

The other option on the table for the EPA is Subtitle D, which would essentially preserve the status quo in that it gives the EPA no enforcement power over coal ash – they can require various that companies take certain precautions, but if , like now, the companies refuse to do so, the citizens have only the states to turn to – states that are run with coal money and coal-fueled elections.

On top of this decision, the EPA currently does not include mine-fills in their consideration. So towns like LaBelle, where old mines are being filled up with ash in often unsafe ways, will not even be discussed unless the public demands it.

Two common arguments against coal ash being labeled hazardous under Subtitle C are states’ rights and job loss.

The state of Pennsylvania has relatively strong regulations about the disposal of coal ash. But corruption and inaction are simply a matter of fact in politics. While the EPA is not immune to the same problems, allowing them regulatory power along with the states would at least give citizens one more set of eyes to look at their situation – one more group they can pray will not be corrupted or unresponsive.

Regarding jobs, I am an optimist, in that I believe that we have the right and ability to demand that our communities be safe while still promoting a healthy economy. It might hurt the industry in some ways to regulate coal ash more, but it will help the many companies that create, build and install regulatory parts like covers and liners. I know a few unemployed engineers, inventors and manufacturers who would love to be working on such projects.

Conservative-leaning folks might still have a problem with the EPA gaining power over coal ash, fearing big government interference in American business. Big government, of course, does play a large part in the coal industry. The federal government has given coal billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks. State governments give millions more beyond that. PDF

But if I was so unlucky as to live in LaBelle, PA, with no way out, I believe I would suddenly become very open to anyone willing to take responsibility over the companies risking my life and the life of my children.

The EPA has a huge decision to make, and they have opened the floor for comments. They are accepting thoughts from the public about this issue until this Friday, November 19.

It is easy to comment, but all comments must be in by Friday, November 19. E-mail rcra-docket(at)epa.gov, with Attention Docket ID No. EPA–HQ–RCRA–2009–0640.

And you can learn more about these proposed regulations by visiting the EPA’s FAQ’s on the subject.

Like the EPA, I would be very open to other suggestions besides Subtitle C. But we have pictures and tests, testimonies and autopsies, and millions of dollars of damage to people and property in places like Kingston, TN, to show how dangerous coal ash can be and how simple it can be to contain it properly.

The alternative would have to be one that guarantees life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to every community near a coal ash disposal site. Arguing that the current rules can guarantee such things is beginning to look less like a misunderstanding and more like an outright lie.

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