“You have to understand the rural way of life: People sat on their porch and enjoyed the air, and they talked to each other. Now they live across the street or down the road from the landfill and it smells … People no longer let their grandchildren play in the yard without fear. The smell, the pollution and the fear affect all aspects of life—whether we can eat from our gardens, hang our clothes or spend time outside. This isn’t right.”
This is the voice of Esther Calhoun, a resident of Uniontown, Alabama, whose life has been greatly diminished because of coal ash. Ms. Calhoun is in Washington, D.C., this week to testify before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the fact that the U.S. EPA is failing to protect minority and low-income Americans from coal ash pollution.
Coal ash is the toxic waste left over from burning coal in power plants to produce electricity, and it is the second largest source of industrial waste in the nation. In 2014, the EPA finalized a coal ash rule that established the first-ever federal safeguards on coal ash dumping. But the EPA failed to fix major pollution problems in communities like Esther’s because the rule puts the burden of enforcement on citizens, rather than requiring government regulators to take action. To make matters worse, the EPA rule allows the continued operation of dangerous coal ash lagoons—the majority of which are located in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Toxic waste can leak slowly from these unlined lagoons, poisoning underlying drinking water aquifers, and catastrophic failures can occur, endangering lives and property. Consequently, the EPA’s coal ash rule results in an unequal and unjustified threat of harm to poor and minority Americans.
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