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Coal's Toxic Sludge

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Back before the spill in Kingston, I visited one of the nation's largest dumping grounds for coal waste — an impoundment site called Little Blue Run, near Shippingport, Pennsylvania. Little Blue Run is a huge, eerie lake filled with ash and sludge from FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield coal plant, a 2,490-megawatt giant that sits on the banks of the Ohio River. FirstEnergy recycles some of the scrubber sludge from the plant into wallboard, but the rest of it gets mixed with the coal ash and pumped through big steel pipes for seven miles and emptied into Little Blue Run. The sludge has a thick, pasty texture, but it's the color of the lake itself that's spooky: a luminous, metallic blue, with swirls of emerald green. Like the vast majority of waste ponds in America, Little Blue Run is unlined — meaning there is no barrier between this toxic metallic stew and the groundwater beneath it. According to a report by the National Research Council, coal ash typically contains 24 different pollutants — some of them deadly, even in minute quantities. In humans, the toxins in coal ash can cause cancer of the liver, kidney, lung and bladder, as well as neurological damage in children. In animals, especially fish and amphibians, they can cause developmental abnormalities. The sheer quantity of toxic metals produced by a big coal plant is mind-boggling. At Little Blue Run, for example, FirstEnergy pumps 81,000 pounds of arsenic compounds into the pond every year. In its undiluted form, a thimbleful will kill you.

Because coal ash has been unregulated for so long, nobody is sure how much coal ash is actually buried where, or what its impact really is. A decade ago, the EPA determined that there were 47 sites where rivers and groundwater had been polluted by heavy metals leaching out of coal-ash dumps. In January, the agency bumped it up to 71. The following month, environmental groups examined public data and found 31 more dumps that weren't on the EPA's list. At some, groundwater is contaminated with levels of arsenic 145 times higher than federal standards allow.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Jeff Stant, who directs a coal-ash initiative for the Environmental Integrity Project. "We don't really know what the risks are, because nobody has bothered to look into it very deeply."

From the start, the coal industry has used its power to ensure that coal ash is not only unregulated by the EPA but not even classified as dangerous. The battle began in 1976, when Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which for the first time called for federal standards on the handling of solid wastes. More important, the new law divided waste into two categories: hazardous waste, which is subject to federal regulation from cradle to grave, and nonhazardous waste, which is dealt with on a state-by-state basis. Thanks in part to the lobbying power of Big Coal, coal ash was placed in the "not worth regulating" category. Even more striking, Rep. Tom Bevill of Alabama — the son of a coal miner — pushed through an amendment requiring the EPA to conduct a study and publish a report to Congress prior to imposing any restrictions on coal ash as a hazardous waste.

An exemption from regulation may have protected the coal industry, but it didn't stop waste ponds and landfills from leaking. By the 1990s, people who lived near impoundment sites began to notice a suspicious number of diseases and illnesses in their neighborhoods. A turning point in public awareness came in 2000, when high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, were found in the drinking water of Pines, Indiana, a community next to a coal-ash landfill. Housing values fell, and parents of children born with hearing impairments and a rare bowel disorder began to wonder if coal ash was responsible. By 2004, the town was designated a toxic Superfund site.

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