“How do you spell relief? COAL ASH,” says Perry County, Alabama Commissioner Albert Turner, Jr., in remarks prepared for a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. Turner testified this week about how the historically poor and black county is benefiting from shipments of coal ash recovered from the east Tennessee community where it spilled from a neighboring coal-firing plant. The problem is residents of Perry County are more apt to call the arrangement a nightmare rather than a boon to the community.
Last December, the lives of the residents of Kingston, Tenn., were changed forever when a coal ash impoundment pond breached, dumping 1.1 billion gallons of toxic material on to 300 acres of rural community. The sludge, piled as high as nine feet in some areas, toppled houses, damaged property, and contaminated nearby waterways. Homeowners were displaced, businesses were compromised, locals began suffering from respiratory problems and were testing positive for heavy metals in their blood.
Suddenly, the country took notice. Environmentalists argued that what had been dubbed as one of the largest environmental disasters of its kind in U.S. history could have been avoided had the federal government been regulating the storage of coal ash. Instead, those regulations were left up to local governments and facility owners, who wallowed in denial instead of dealing with the warning signs of possible storage pond failures.
Recent tests on coal ash show that the sludge contains dangerous toxins that have been linked to serious health concerns such as cancer, liver damage and neurological complications. Yet, the material was never classified as a hazardous material, and thus never fell under federal regulations.
Since the coal ash spill last year, the Environmental Protection Agency has been inspecting coal storage sites throughout the country and offering recommendations. But where does that leave American citizens who live close to coal ash impoundment ponds, including residents who live in Perry County, which is now taking in coal ash recovered from the east Tennessee spill site?
Turner calls it a “godsend.” By storing the recovered coal ash, Perry County will reap millions of dollars in storage fees and about 50 new jobs have been created at the local landfill. A group of residents from Perry County beg to disagree. They have filed suit against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) saying the EPA should not allow the landfill to receive any more coal ash because there are no set standards for the safe disposal of ash and the prevention of it leaching into waterways, and because gasses from the lagoons are causing respiratory problems for area residents.
The attorney representing the residents says his clients are ready to file a lawsuit against the owners of the landfill as well.