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How Breathing Coal Ash Is Hazardous to Your Health
Since the TVA Kingston, Tennessee, coal ash dam burst in 2008 spilling more than one billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres, it seems there’s been an unfortunate—and avoidable—string of coal ash spills polluting U.S. waters, including Duke Energy’s spill into the Dan River in North Carolina this February.
More than 200 sites nationwide have experienced coal ash polluting nearby lakes, streams and rivers. From contaminated drinking water sources to illegal dumping caught on hidden cameras, it’s clear: our waterways have been taking a beating from coal ash.
But what about the air we breathe?
“Coal ash contaminating water supplies is well known,” said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice. “Our report details another danger of unregulated coal ash waste. Breathing dust can cause disease and drastically decrease the quality of life for communities along the fenceline of coal ash dumpsites. We know coal ash is poisoning our water, and now we also know that it’s poisoning our air as well.”
This danger of unregulated and unmonitored coal ash dumping is highlighted in a new report, Ash in Lungs: How Breathing Coal Ash is Hazardous to Your Health, released today by Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthjustice.
Dust from coal ash contains small particle pollution, which increases health risks from inhalation and can trigger immunological reactions and inflammation. Pollutants could include radioactive materials, mercury, hydrogen sulfide and silica, which can lead to silicosis. Workers at dumpsites and power plants are exposed to these dangerous pollutants, as are unwitting communities through which uncovered trucks carrying coal ash travel or that are in proximity to coal ash landfills.
that’s what it’s doing to my truck, imagine what it’s doing to me,” said Gibbs. Photo credit: Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
“Breathing toxic coal ash dust can lead to disease and even death,” said Dr. Alan Lockwood, emeritus professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “This is a dangerous pollutant that not only damages the respiratory system, but even increases the rate of heart attacks and strokes.”
Despite obvious health risks, no federal requirements exist to control fugitive dust or the storage and disposal of this toxic waste. Only one state, Pennsylvania, requires dust controls at coal ash ponds. The report takes a look at six communities poisoned by coal ash dust.
Earthjustice, on behalf of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Environmental Integrity Project, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Montana Environmental Information Center, Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Western North Carolina Alliance, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its failure to follow the law and to finalize coal ash regulations that the Agency first proposed in 2010. As a result, EPA will finalize the nation’s first federal coal ash regulations by Dec. 19.
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By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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