Clean Air Task Force

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The site of this coal combustion wastefill is near a residential area.

Each year, coal-fired power plants generate 130 million tons of solid power plant waste (PPW)—enough to fill the Grand Canyon. Laden with heavy metals and other harmful toxics known to contaminate water supplies, these wastes cause injury and death to livestock and wildlife, and threaten human health with birth defects, cancer, and organ and neurological damage. PPW is routinely dumped in unlined impoundments, landfills, and mines throughout the United States, allowing hazardous chemicals such as arsenic, chromium, and lead to leach into surface and ground waters.

Much of the problem stems from the total absence of federal regulation. Regulation of PPW is left entirely to the states, which have set low standards and apply haphazard enforcement. Although PPW is the nation’s second largest industrial waste stream and contains more toxic chemicals than the wastes from pulp and paper mills, chemical manufacturers, petroleum refineries, and textile mills combined, PPW is regulated with far less stringency than is ordinary household trash. For decades, the power industry has profited from such regulatory neglect and has avoided the substantial economic cost as well as true social, public health, and environmental responsibility for the burning of coal. People living closest to power plants and PPW dump sites—often rural, poor, racial minorities—are exposed to PPW’s toxic chemicals by drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated food, breathing the dust, or, in the case of children, ingesting contaminated soil.

CATF has been advocating that coal combustion waste be regulated as a “hazardous waste” for more than a decade. Working with Earthjustice Foundation and Environmental Integrity Project, CATF petitioned U.S. EPA in 2007 to set minimum safeguards to protect water supplies, human health, and the environment at coal combustion waste disposal sites. In the fall of 2009, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson promised a decision on the petition within a few months, but no decision was forthcoming. The White House continues to hold the matter under consideration. Since 1999, CATF has been working with activists in affected communities, and with other state and regional environmental advocates, to establish minimum national safeguards on PPW disposal. Through the use of targeted lawsuits seeking remediation of the worst contamination sites, public education campaigns, and a concerted effort to influence the development of federal disposal standards, CATF and its allies are attempting to halt this burgeoning toxic waste crisis.

The severity of PPW threats is has recently been explored by the New York Times and 60 Minutes. For more information on how to take action on protecting the environment and public health from PPW threats, explore the work of Environmental Integrity Project.