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How the Coal Ash Industry Manipulated EPA Reports

Blackwash

by JOSHUA FRANK

The coal ash industry manipulated reports and publications about the dangers of coal combustion waste, reports Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group stated that the Environmental Protection Agency allowed the multibillon-dollar coal ash industry to have virtually unfettered access to the EPA during the Bush administration and now under President Obama.

As a result of the industry’s formal relationship with the EPA, insiders were allowed to edit and ghostwrite publications and official reports on the effects of coal waste. The documents obtained by PEER indicate that the coal ash industry "watered down official reports, brochures and fact-sheets to remove references to potential dangers" of coal ash waste. Additionally, the so-called "environmental benefits" of coal ash were repeatedly aggrandized.

"For most of the past decade, it appears that every EPA publication on the subject was ghostwritten by the American Coal Ash Association," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose group examined thousands of coal industry and EPA communications. "In this partnership it is clear that industry is EPA’s senior partner."

There is little debate that coal ash is toxic, despite what the wavering EPA and steadfast coal industry purport.

Coal ash is the sludgy muck that is left over after coal is burned to produce electricity and is often laden with heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and selenium. These harmful substances can produce cancer, kidney problems and nervous-system disease. The amount of heavy metals in coal-ash depends largely on the type of coal burned. However, all coal produces this waste, even though the toxicity may vary slightly depending on the type of coal being incinerated.

While the EPA continues to discuss whether or not it should classify coal ash as a hazardous waste, the environmental and health effects of a coal slurry impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston coal-fired power plant in Harriman, Tennessee, are still not known. The December 2008 catastrophe caused more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash to enter the Tennessee River.

The spill was over 40 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Approximately 525 million gallons of black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama and Kentucky. The true adverse effects of the spill are still not known.

An immediate crackdown on TVA and other coal-slurry impoundments by the EPA was likely sidelined as a result of the American Coal Ash Association’s formal partnership with the EPA during the Bush administration. If coal ash were deemed a hazardous waste, coal companies could potentially lose billions of dollars in revenue, as they would not be able to promote their toxic coal ash substances for agricultural, consumer and industrial use.

It seems as if the efforts of coal industry representatives have paid off handsomely. Back in 2002, the EPA released a report that indicated the agency had information on the risks of coal ash, yet requests for the data under the Freedom of Information Act were either denied or the documents that were released, with the estimates of cancer risks, were largely blacked out.

Then in 2007, an EPA study found that people living near coal ash sites had as high as a 1-in-50 chance of developing cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water. The report also showed that living near such storage sites raised an individual’s risk of damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and other organs exposed to toxic metals in the ash. But the report, according to the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, only made available some of the data, while covering up the true extent of the health risks associated with coal ash.

Recent documents obtained by PEER indicate that the coal industry had access to these health reports and was successful in manipulating the information presented to the public about coal ash’s negative effects on humans and the environment.

References indicating the "high-risk" potential of coal combustion waste were deleted from PowerPoint presentations. Cautionary language about coal waste uses in agricultural practices was altered in order to remove negative connotations. In 2007, the coal ash industry inserted language in an EPA report to Congress about how "industry and EPA [need to] work together" in order to block or water down "state regulations [that] are hindering progress" in the use of coal ash waste.

"It is no joke – the terms of the coal ash partnership tuck EPA snugly into bed with industry for the purpose of marketing coal combustion wastes as a product," Ruch of PEER added, noting that the partnership has now crossed over into the Obama administration. "EPA is supposed to be an objective regulatory agency dedicated to protecting the public instead of protecting a gigantic subsidy for a powerful industry."

JOSHUA FRANK is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press.

First published in Truthout.org