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Weekly Mulch: Coal ash in our stockings

| December 25, 2010

It's the naughty children who get coal in their stockings, and it seems like Americans must have been naughty this year. Because across the country, we're awash with coal, carcinogens, and other toxins. And our government is not doing to much to change that.

Waste not

After the massive coal ash spill in Tennessee two years ago, the EPA began working on more stringent regulation of the waste, a byproduct of coal mining. But, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones, the industry has been pressuring the administration to adopts weaker regulations than it could.

"Two years after the largest toxic spill in the nation's history, there is still no regulation of deadly coal ash dumps -- nor is there clear direction from EPA on the timing or content of a final rule," Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, told Sheppard.  "For the communities enduring damage from aging ponds and leaking landfills, time has run out. There is no reason on earth that their health should be compromised by such an easily avoidable harm."

What's in the water?

Coal ash is one of those pollutants that clearly poses a problem. It looks dangerous. But not all pollutants are so obviously dangerous. This week, for instance, the Environmental Working Group, an environmental health non-profit group, released a report showing that much of the country's tap water is contaminated with the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, with levels high enough to pose a risk to human health.

"Exposure in tap water has been linked to cancers of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract in both animals and people," Rebecca Sutton, a scientist for the Environmental Working Group, wrote at AlterNet. Thirty-one of the 35 cities that the group examined had dangerously high levels of the contaminants in the tap water.

How did this happen? As Sarah Parsons explains at Change.org, "The reason so much chromium-6 winds up in tap water is that industries spew it into waterways, utilities fail to test for the substance, and the EPA doesn’t regulate it in drinking water."

What the EPA does do, Parsons reports, is limit the total chromium in drinking water, "the combined amount of hexavalent chromium and trivalent chromium." She explains, "The problem is that trivalent chromium is actually good for you -- in fact, it's necessary for metabolism. Hexavalent chromium, on the other hand, is a noxious carcinogen."

Moving forward

These prevalent toxins are just two reminders that, for all their successes in recent decades, environmentalists still have much work ahead of them. How should they approach that work? Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark, considering lessons from the 1980s-era environmental leaders, who focused on moving toward the center and working within the confines of D.C. politics, offers this thought: "The new leaders of 2010 say what we need is less focused group messaging and inside-the-Beltway maneuverings, and more heartfelt spirit and energy directed encouraged at the grassroots. I hope their instincts are right. Because at this point I don't think we can wait another 25 years to figure this stuff out."

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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