Pending Bills Fail to Protect Communities from Toxic Coal Ash
The Congressional Research Service issued an analysis of two pending pieces of coal ash legislation—H.R. 2273 and S.3512—finding that the bills lack a clear purpose and would not ensure state adoption and implementation of standards “necessary to protect human health and the environment.” These bills—one passed by the House of Representatives in October 2011 and the other now pending in the Senate—would prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from ever setting federally enforceable safeguards for the disposal of toxic coal ash.
Just days before the 4th anniversary of the devastating billion-gallon coal ash spill in Kingston, TN, that damaged and destroyed dozens of homes, the report concludes that both bills:
- Give States the discretion to implement coal ash permit programs that are less stringent than the programs applicable to household waste landfills;
- Have a “level of uncertainty [that] defeats the purpose of a permit program and would not be consistent with other programs under RCRA.”
- Provide “no federal backstop authority to implement federal standards comparable to its authorities established under other environmental law, including RCRA.”
- Creates a program without “detailed regulatory standards, [which is] unprecedented in federal environmental law.”
- Lack a clear “standard of protection” to guarantee that state programs actually protect human health and the environment, which is “unique among all federal environmental law.”
Furthermore, the report questions the reason for creating a program that fails to address the risks posed by both dry and wet disposal of coal ash stating, “Absent the creation of standards applicable to CCR [Coal Combustion Residuals] landfills and surface impoundments that address risks specifically associated with CCR disposal, the purpose of creating a CCR permit program is not clear.”
“The Congressional Research Service has confirmed what we’ve known all along,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “The Senate coal ash bill is a sham that will not protect communities from toxic coal ash or prevent another Kingston disaster. Congress must get out of the way and let EPA do its job.”
The Senate bill—the so-called “Coal Ash Recycling Act of 2012,” (S.3512)—blocks an EPA rulemaking that would prevent spills and water contamination at hundreds of coal ash sites across the country. More than 200 sites have already contaminated nearby rivers, lakes, streams or aquifers with dangerous pollutants like arsenic, lead, selenium and more. Introduced earlier this year, rumors abound that S.3512 could be attached to unrelated must-pass legislation at any time, the result of intense lobbying from the coal and power industries.
“This report highlights that both bills would do little or nothing to change the status quo of coal ash dumps prone to leaking coal ash pollutants or catastrophic breaches,” said Lisa Widawsky Hallowell, attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “Given the fact that there are nearly 200 damage cases nationwide, coal ash legislation that fails to phase out dangerous surface impoundments and strips the EPA of the ability to set minimum design criteria for landfills is simply indefensible in 2012.”
Millions of tons of coal ash are currently stored in immense earthen dams. The report states that a structural failure “could result in a catastrophic release of coal ash slurry.” Due to the unique risks posed by coal ash ponds, the EPA proposed that dangerous surface impoundments be subjected to design and inspection requirements similar to those established by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Although the CRS report states that the “potential for structural failure could be minimized by various means, including ensuring that the units meet certain design standards and are inspected regularly,” the report notes that these requirements are absent from the House and Senate bills. This absence is critical, as the report also notes the “majority of states” do not have “siting controls, inspection, or structural integrity requirements for surface impoundments—requirements necessary to minimize the potential of a structural failure.”
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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World's Richest One Percent Are Producing More Than Double the Carbon Emissions as the Bottom 50 Percent
A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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