Coal ash — a toxic byproduct of burning coal — is a major environmental problem. But disposal sites for coal ash are more likely to be located in and around low-income and minority communities, a fact that’s prompting a U.S. commission to look into whether coal ash is a civil rights problem, too.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold a briefing next Friday, January 22, to “shine a light on the civil rights implications of toxic coal ash, as well as other environmental conditions, on communities most in need of protection,” according to a statement released by Commission Chairman Martin R. Castro.
The briefing will include testimony from experts in a range of subjects, from environmental justice to public health. Representatives from the coal ash industry will also be present at the briefing. At the end, the Commission will hold a public comment period until February 2, and then ultimately produce a report in the fall of 2016.
“We’re hoping that the Commission will recommend that EPA take actions that will address the disparities and address the predicted increase in threats to low-income and minority communities,” Lisa Evans, an attorney with EarthJustice who will testify during the briefing, told ThinkProgress.
A particular concern for Evans is how low-income and minority communities will be impacted by the EPA’s new coal ash rule, which was finalized in December of 2014. Historically, when coal companies have dealt with coal ash, they’ve often disposed of it in unlined pits — known as coal ash lagoons, ponds, or impoundments — where the ash is mixed with water. Sometimes, that slurry can make its way into groundwater, threatening the health of those that rely on that groundwater for their drinking water. That’s concerning, because coal ash — the second-largest form of waste generated in the United States — is highly toxic, having been shown to contain chemicals like arsenic, chromium, mercury, and lead, as well as high levels of radioactive elements.
Under the new rule — which constitutes the first-ever regulation for coal ash — utilities are required to line all new coal ash pits and clean up existing unlined pits only if they are actively polluting ground water and attached to active power plants. And while utilities are required to implement these measures, oversight at the state level is voluntary, while oversight by the EPA is banned outright.
That means that for low-income and minority communities living in the shadow of coal ash ponds — which Evans says can be as large as 100 acres and several stories tall — the only course of recompense against utilities that might be polluting would be to file a civil suit. Civil suits are both expensive and require a great amount of technical knowledge — resources that might not be readily available to low-income and minority communities.
“While safety measures are mandated in the new rule, the concern is about enforcement in those very communities where the threats are the highest,” Evans said. “[The EPA rule is] a double jeopardy for affected communities, because these impoundments can be dangerous and it’s not clear whether they’ll be able to understand whether they are operating safely.”
Evans hopes that the commission will recommend that the EPA take immediate measures to support affected communities living near coal ash disposal sites. Under the new rule, for instance, utilities are required to establish publicly accessible websites — to find those websites, however, a user would have to go through the process of finding each utilities website individually. Evans suggests that the EPA could streamline the process, and make information more accessible, simply by maintaining a list of utilities and their websites in a single location.
“If the burden is on communities to ensure that the utilities comply [with the new rules], then there needs to be assistance to communities,” Evans said.