TVA, File, Associated Press
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Black dust from the giant coal ash heap across the street from Kathy Little's Louisville home swirls in the wind, coating her windows, her car, and blows indoors to settle on the furniture.
The ash blanketing Little's property is a byproduct of a nearby coal-burning power plant. Since it's full of fine particles of arsenic, chromium and other metals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering classifying the ash as a hazardous material.
"It's a constant struggle and it's a sad situation because there's not a lot of people that know that goliath is over there," Little said of the ash dump near her home — at Louisville Gas & Electric's Cane Run Station.
Power plants in the U.S. produce about 140 million tons of the ash each year.
But for Little and many others around the country, it took a massive coal ash spill in December 2008 in eastern Tennessee to awaken to the environmental impact of the gritty particles invading her home. The spill that year from a Tennessee Valley Authority storage pond poured more than 5 million cubic yards of ash into a river and spoiled hundreds of acres in a community 35 miles west of Knoxville.
The spill is considered one of the nation's worst environmental disasters and drew national attention to coal ash and its ominous-sounding ingredients. The EPA later declared that ash contaminants can leach into the ground and reach drinking water sources — creating health concerns. The agency says there are about 1,000 active coal ash storage sites in the U.S.
But two years after the agency proposed regulating coal ash as hazardous and placing restrictions on its disposal, the EPA has issued no ruling.
For Little — and the environmental activists who are just as alarmed — the EPA's ruling is taking too long. They say they're worried that the politically charged environment surrounding the EPA in a presidential election year could delay the ruling further.
"It's frustrating," Little said. "A lot of people don't realize the health impact on the neighborhoods that live immediately adjacent to these landfills."
In a statement to The Associated Press, the EPA declined to provide a timetable for a ruling on the regulation. The agency said it won't act until it reviews information about ash and some 450,000 public comments gathered in 2010 at hearings around the country.
Coal industry supporters and businesses that use the coal ash have argued that the substance is not dangerous, and the metals contained in the ash are found in low concentrations.
"There's more mercury in your compact fluorescent light bulbs than coal ash but we don't call them toxic," said John Ward, chairman of the pro-coal ash group Citizens for Recycling First.
Hoping to spur EPA action, a large coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit April 5 in federal court in Washington, D.C., exhorting a judge to compel the government agency to rule on coal ash. The groups from several states, including Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Illinois and Montana, also want a judge to declare the EPA in violation of a federal law that requires the agency to upgrade environmental regulations periodically.
They say in the suit that coal ash is "one of the largest and most toxic solid waste streams in the nation," and regulations have not been updated since the early 1980s.
The EPA said in its statement to AP that it is reviewing the lawsuit and "will respond as appropriate."
"There's an extraordinary amount of frustration because this is a festering problem," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy based in Knoxville, Tenn. The group is one of 11 plaintiffs in the suit,
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