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Landmark Coal Ash Bill Signals Hope for Midwest Communities

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Landmark Coal Ash Bill Signals Hope for Midwest Communities
Coal ash has contaminated the Vermilion River in Illinois. Eco-Justice Collaborative / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Jessica A. Knoblauch

Summers in the Midwest are great for outdoor activities like growing your garden or cooling off in one of the area's many lakes and streams. But some waters aren't as clean as they should be.

That's in part because coal companies have long buried toxic waste known as coal ash near many of the Midwest's iconic waterways, including Lake Michigan. Though coal ash dumps can leak harmful chemicals like arsenic and cadmium into nearby waters, regulators have done little to address these toxic sites. As a result, the Midwest is now littered with coal ash dumps, with Illinois containing the most leaking sites in the country.



Thankfully, Illinois policymakers have just passed a coal ash bill that will finally help address the coal ash problem. If signed into law, the new protections signal hope for those who have been impacted by toxic coal ash for far too long.

The landmark legislation comes after years of advocacy by community groups such as Eco-Justice Collaborative and the Central Illinois Healthy Communities Alliance, as well as legal work by Earthjustice, Sierra Club and others.

Children enjoy tubing along the Vermilion River, which is polluted by coal ash.

Photo courtesy of Pam Richart / Eco-Justice Collaborative

The momentum for stronger coal ash protections began to build in 2014, after Earthjustice won a court settlement that forced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enact the first-ever federal safeguards on coal ash. The new protections were a huge win for impacted communities at risk of coal ash disasters, like the one that hit Kingston, Tennessee, where dozens of homes were destroyed in 2008.

The Trump administration, however, was determined to carry out the coal industry's bidding. So in 2018, it announced it was weakening the coal ash rule. Earthjustice quickly sued the administration for its illegal action. At the same time we were defending the rule, Earthjustice attorneys were also arguing that the original 2015 protections should be even stronger. In August 2018, a court agreed, forcing policy makers and coal companies to accept the reality that they would eventually have to address this problem nationwide. Illinois alone, for example, has more than 80 impoundments, including more than 50 that must close in the next few years under the current federal rule.

While the cases played out in court, coal companies began reporting groundwater monitoring data required under the 2015 safeguards. According to industry's own data, almost all coal ash ponds nationwide — 91 percent based on the first year of data reported — are contaminating groundwater with toxins above levels that the federal EPA deems to be safe.

Armed with that damning data, which came to light thanks to analysis by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project, advocates banded together to push their legislators to address the contamination. With 22 of Illinois' 24 coal-fired power plants shown to have contaminated groundwater with unsafe levels of one or more toxic pollutants, state politicians and regulators could no longer avert their eyes to the dangers of coal ash. In Danville, Illinois, for example, local groups like Prairie Rivers Network brought the data to legislators like State Senator Scott Bennett (D-Champaign), who had long been concerned about nearby coal ash ponds contaminating his constituency's prized gem, the Vermilion River.

Now the coal industry's defenses are beginning to fail in both Illinois and around the country. Earlier this year, Virginia passed bipartisan legislation requiring a powerful utility to recycle at least 25 percent of its coal ash and move the rest to lined landfills that won't leak into nearby waters. In addition, North Carolina passed its own coal ash legislation, requiring another major coal player to completely excavate and close all of its toxic ponds in the state.

Now, all eyes are on Illinois, as the bill goes to Gov. Pritzker's (D-IL) desk for signing. Key aspects of the proposed Illinois bill include:

  • Financial assurances that the cost of coal ash cleanup will be borne by the coal companies, not taxpayers.
  • Public participation in the form of opportunities for public review, comment and hearings on proposed permits for closing and cleaning up ash ponds. Previously, more than 20 closure plans for coal ash sites in Illinois have been approved entirely behind closed doors. Now, the community has a voice.
  • Regulations as protective as the federal rules as well as mandates that go above and beyond the federal rules. Those include requiring ash pond owners to evaluate closing the ponds by getting rid of the source of the pollution – i.e., digging up the ash – and prioritizing closure of high risk sites and those affecting environmental justice areas.

"After years of inaction, Illinois will finally be taking steps to protect the public from the environmental and financial threats posed by coal ash ponds," says Andrew Rehn of Prairie Rivers Network, which played a critical role in organizing, lobbying, grassroots work and media.

Earthjustice attorney Jenny Cassel adds that pushing the coal ash bill through has been a "fantastic team effort," with Earthjustice playing a leading role in drafting, negotiation, legal analysis and communications.

"The bill and the issue were relatively unknown in the House and we needed 60 votes to pass it," said Cassel. "We ended up getting 77 votes, a clear sign that the bill's bipartisan measures appealed to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle."

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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