The Environmental Protection Agency has completely failed to regulate coal ash effectively. Focusing on a case in Bokoshe, Oklahoma and a coal company literally named Making Money Having Fun, this Center for Public Integrity report is highly alarming.
The situation in Bokoshe exposes the weakness in the EPA’s coal ash rule, the fallacy that dumping can continue under the guise of beneficial use. To encourage recycling of coal ash, the agency exempts from federal oversight any disposal method that meets this definition. And this gives carte blanche to sites like the Making Money pit, an old coal mine where disposal of coal ash is considered a beneficial use by the state.
For the purposes of coal ash recycling, there are two types of beneficial use: Encapsulated, in which, for example, the ash becomes part of concrete or wallboard; and unencapsulated, in which loose material is reused as fill for road construction or dumped in active and abandoned coal mines, a practice known as minefilling. The most common reuse method, minefilling remains unregulated at the federal level because of a loophole in the EPA’s coal ash rule. The EPA handed off regulation of the practice to the Interior Department, which has yet to act. The deferral was partly the product of vigorous lobbying by the utility industry over many years.
“If you choose to follow [industry] recommendations, then coal ash reuse is legitimate,” says Tom Adams, of the American Coal Ash Association, a group of utility companies and ash recyclers. He touts coal ash recycling as “one of America’s greatest recycling success stories.”
Evidence suggests otherwise. In 2012, a report prepared for the EPA analyzed a coal ash blend known as AgreMax, marketed by the AES Corporation as “structural fill” for construction — an unencapsulated beneficial use. Researchers found contaminants from the ash mixture can ooze into the environment. Tests showed that arsenic, boron, chloride and chromium could leach at levels up to 9,000 times safety standards.
In 2014, the EPA chronicled 158 cases in 32 states where coal ash compromised water quality. Of these, 22, or 14 percent, involved beneficial use. In some, pollution has degraded nearby water supplies enough to exceed safety standards. In others, the ash has sullied water on site. Some examples:
In Rocky Mount, North Carolina, coal ash recycled as structural fill over 25 acres contaminated the groundwater of adjacent property with arsenic, mercury and lead, resulting in a $4,000 state fine.
In Camden, Tennessee, coal ash used to fill a gravel quarry tainted two residential wells with boron and mercury; the EPA took emergency action after a resident had suffered “burning skin sensations” from the water.
In Chesapeake, Virginia, developers reused 1.5 million tons of coal ash to build a golf course over a shallow aquifer, only to watch the ash blacken 25 residential wells.
“Structural fills have caused the same damage that [regulated] disposal sites cause,” says Lisa Hallowell, of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “They’ve proven to be dangerous.”
The rest of the article explores both the health impact of the coal ash and the lobbying campaign of the coal industry that has undermined meaningful regulation. How do the people of Bokoshe feel?
“Nobody cares,” Holmes says, alluding to state and federal regulators. “Everybody says, ‘It’s not up to us.’ It’s never anybody’s fault, and it’s always somebody else’s problem.”