Advocates from Across the Country Rally in Chicago for Coal Ash Rule Reform

CHICAGO—Environmental advocates and community members from 21 states and Puerto Rico rallied here Wednesday in support of reforming rules on coal ash disposal. The rally took place near an EPA hearing where about 100 witnesses testified on a new draft rule. 

Coal ash is waste from the burning of coal for electricity; energy companies commonly dispose of it in coal ash ponds. The substance contains toxins, including heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury. Many ponds are unlined, allowing for the leaching of these toxins into the soil and contaminating nearby water sources, which can be exacerbated by extreme weather events like heavy rainfall. Some ponds are left uncovered, which can lead to wind blowing coal ash particles into the air, posing health risks for nearby communities whose residents inhale them. 

Witnesses at the hearing and the rally pleaded for stricter regulation and oversight of coal ash disposal. Several said they have loved ones who have died or become ill from exposure to toxic coal ash.

Vickie Simmons, a member of the Tribal Council of the Moapa Band of Paiute in Nevada, shared how she lost a brother who worked at a coal yard to cardiomyopathy when he was 31. “He fell to the ground one day and was dead within one month,” she said.

“We want [the EPA] to know that we will never give up,” Betty Johnson, from Tennessee, said. “We will always be on their back. We will always remind them that they got a job to do.”

Johnson’s husband was one of the first responders who cleaned up the Kingston coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008. He died in May after struggling with health issues she said were due to the coal ash. Dozens of workers from the spill site died from illnesses related to exposure to coal ash. 

Close to half a million people live within one mile of a facility where there is a coal ash dump, and over 70 percent of the 265 power plants with ash ponds or landfills are located near communities that are low-income or communities of color, according to an analysis of EPA data by Earthjustice. 

Ingestion of the chemical compounds in coal ash can lead to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and prolonged exposure to certain compounds in coal ash can increase the risk of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“This is our collective moment that we have long been waiting for, to bring a mighty voice to this silent crisis,” said Ashley Williams, executive director of Just Transition Northwest Indiana. “In Michigan City, like so many communities, we are sick and tired of being sacrificed by utility profiteers.”

A witness testifies to the EPA at a hearing in Chicago on new coal ash disposal rules. Credit: Aydali Campa

A witness testifies to the EPA at a hearing in Chicago on new coal ash disposal rules. Credit: Aydali Campa

Indiana, Illinois and Ohio have the most power plants with coal ash ponds, according to Earthjustice. More than 100 coal ash sites sit within two miles of the shorelines of the Great Lakes, a drinking water source for 30 million people in nearby communities. 

The current rule was established in 2015 during the Obama administration. It requires that companies safely dispose of coal ash and clean up any coal ash sites that may contaminate groundwater. But hundreds of sites are exempt from the rule, and an Earthjustice investigation in November found that more than 90 percent of regulated coal plants were still polluting groundwater. 

After a legal settlement with public interest groups represented by Earthjustice, the EPA proposed a new rule in May that would extend monitoring, closure and cleanup protections to sites previously exempted in active and retired power plants. Inside Climate News, WMFE in Orlando and NPR drew national attention to the federal loophole in 2021 and 2022.

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Advocates say the draft rule fails to extend regulations to all coal ash dump sites at former plants and would continue to be implemented by the polluters themselves and difficult to enforce, Inside Climate News reported in May. 

“EPA is now on a correction course, and we’re very happy to see that proposed rule,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney at Earthjustice.“We’d like to see it strengthened, but it is a very good step in the right direction.”

The hearing and rally came a week after the EPA proposed denying a request by Midwest Generation to extend a deadline to close an ash pond in Waukegan, Illinois. The city, located north of Chicago, has a majority Hispanic population and is home to five superfund sites. The agency said it denied the request because the Waukegan Generating Station is not in compliance with coal ash regulations, including insufficient groundwater monitoring.

The Waukegan Generating Station’s two coal-burning units closed in 2022, but its coal ash ponds remain, and nearby residents have been calling for the ash to be cleaned up, fearing that it’s contaminating the community’s groundwater. About 79 percent of all facilities with coal ash dumps are located within a quarter mile of surface water, according to an Earthjustice analysis.

“EPA is firmly committed to cleaning up and closing unlined, coal ash impoundments as quickly as possible to protect human health and the environment,” EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore said in the announcement of the proposed denial. “The Waukegan community has been burdened for too long by the effects of improper coal ash disposal.”

Advocates in Waukegan celebrate the proposed denial of the permit but say the goal is to have new federal coal ash disposal regulations that protect all communities from the health risks from these ponds. 

The comment period for the proposed rules ends in July. Final rules are expected to be finalized by next year.

James Bruggers and Amy Green contributed reporting to this story.

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