Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Ashes, Ashes -- act right now
distributed 8/27/10 - ©2010

Night and day, coal trains rumble south through Denver. Mile-long strings of coal cars thread their way through the city, and on along the Platte River valley. Each car is mounded with black rock, feeding power plants in Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and beyond. Each train provides about a day's worth of fuel for one power plant.

Every time I see the interminable rows of coal cars, every time I hear the blaring horn from locomotives at rail crossings a few miles from my home and office, I feel a pang of grief and a twinge of conscience. The coal will provide the electricity that I use and that our society craves. The burning of that coal will add tons and tons of climate-warping carbon dioxide to our atmosphere.

Every day, the trains move through Denver, and through countless other communities across the country and around the world. I've lamented the destruction from mining, out of huge open pits in Wyoming, and with mountain-top removal in Appalachia. I've protested the pollution from burning coal, not only the greenhouse gas CO2, but the toxic mercury and other compounds contained in smoke.

In years of fretting about coal, though, I've been oblivious to another persistent danger, one that should have been obvious, but has been largely out of sight and out of mind for me. When that coal is burned, it doesn't all turn into smoke and gas and heat. The coal on those mile-long trains leaves behind massive amounts of "Coal Combustion Residuals", CCR, more commonly known as coal ash. The disposal of that stuff is a hazard to human and environmental health, and a major economic factor in why coal seems like such a cheap source of energy.

Coal ash is a hot political topic this fall. The Environmental Protection Agency is gathering public comment on new regulations about the storage of coal ash. I encourage you to submit a comment in favor of the strong version of those regulations.

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Coal ash dramatically broke into the news in December, 2008, when over 5 million cubic yards -- over a billion gallons -- of wet ash spilled from a retaining pond in Kingston, Tennessee. (As with the oil disaster this summer in the Gulf of Mexico, "spill" just doesn't seem like an adequate word.) The huge volume of ash stockpiled at just one site was eye-opening to many of us. The realization that the ash contains substantial levels of dangerous chemicals, that it is not some sort of benign dirt, kicked intellectual awareness into moral concern.

The 2008 spill prompted the EPA to begin considering federal regulation of coal ash, but the agency was already familiar with the dangers of CCR. An EPA report in 2007 found that coal ash disposal sites release toxic chemicals and metals such as arsenic, lead, boron, selenium, cadmium, thallium, and other pollutants at levels that pose risks to human health and the environment. Coal ash waste ponds pose a cancer risk 900 times above what is defined as 'acceptable.'

As is so often the case, there are aspects of racial and economic bias in the location of the coal ash sites. The EPA reports that 52% of the almost 500 sites they researched are in areas that are disproportionately low-income.

There are over 2,000 coal ash disposal sites around the country. You can use an interactive map from the Sierra Club to get a feel for the widespread scope of the problem, and to zoom in on locations closest to you. When I found the Arapahoe power plant two miles from my home, the satellite image allowed me to see a collection of ash ponds surrounding the plant that are invisible from the road.

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The Environmental Protection Agency has recognized the risk to public health and the environment from inadequate storage and disposal of coal ash. The rules that they originally proposed would, for the first time, classify coal combustion residuals as hazardous waste. Under pressure from the coal industry and electric utilities, and from politicians in the US House and Senate, the EPA has been forced to offer a much weaker option as an alternative.

The public comments being received this fall will help shape the choice between the strict regulations under subtitle C, and the very weak regulations under subtitle D. (A chart from the EAP provides a concise comparison of the two options. A 4-page PDF document from Earthjustice and others gives a clear summary of differences between the two proposals.)

The subtitle C option is the one initially recommended by the EPA, and it is the one supported by a broad coalition of environmental groups. It would effectively phase out surface impoundments of coal ash. The subtitle D option classifies coal ash as household waste, with minimal restrictions, and with weak enforcement.

How can you comment on the EPA coal ash regulations?

Every day, those long trains deliver coal to power plants. And every day, the power plants generate mountains of toxic coal ash. For the health of our communities, the storage of that ash must be appropriately and strongly regulated.

I urge you to take action today to submit a comment to the EPA in support of the strong subtitle C option.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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