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This opinion piece was written for Earthjustice and is reprinted here with permission.

Dec. 22 marks the second anniversary of the nation’s largest toxic waste spill, when a billion-gallon wave of arsenic-filled coal ash carried away three houses and destroyed a riverfront community below the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant in rural Tennessee.

Two years and $400 million dollars later, critical problems remain. Despite removal of more than 3 million tons of spilled ash, the cleanup at Kingston is far from complete, and the direction of EPA’s rulemaking, intended to prevent another spill, is as murky as the contaminated cove beneath the broken dam. 

The disaster cast a spotlight on EPA’s 30-year failure to regulate the disposal of coal ash, a toxic-laden waste left over after burning coal for electricity. In the absence of federal protection standards, an enormous quantity of this waste has been dumped in unlined pits and ponds throughout the U.S. At least 50 high-hazard dams hold back millions of tons of toxic ash and threaten communities, like Harriman, that face destruction should these aging, unregulated dams break. And if another one of these dams collapses, human life is expected to be lost.

Beyond these catastrophic disasters, there are more than 100 locations across the country where water and air are poisoned by coal ash.. Arsenic levels in drinking water around unlined ash ponds can be high enough to cause cancer in 1 of 50 people – which is 2,000 times EPA’s acceptable risk. Additionally, these sites often are not covered, allowing ash to enter into the lungs of vulnerable populations like children and the elderly.

Immediately following the TVA disaster, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson recognized the danger to our nation’s health and environment posed by unregulated coal ash, and she pledged to close that gap. But along the winding path to effective controls, the administration lost its way.

The regulatory proposal that appeared 18 months after the disaster offered no clear direction. Yet, at eight public hearings this fall, thousands of citizens voiced their clear and unequivocal support for strong, federally enforceable regulations. Last month, EPA received approximately 450,000 public comments—the great majority demanding that coal ash be regulated in a manner that protects public health.

Two years is more than enough time to adopt common sense regulations that protect our health and water from toxic chemicals – such as arsenic, lead and mercury – in coal ash. Today, we point again to the ruined community of Harriman and say “never again.”

High on our Christmas wish list is that the EPA in 2011 will finish the job of reversing the decades of neglect and finalize a rule that protects the nation from cataclysmic coal ash disasters, the poisoning of our drinking water, the fouling of our air, and the destruction of aquatic environments. We hope the EPA’s New Year’s resolution is the same. 

Two years after billion-gallon toxic ash spill, EPA still dawdles
Communities across U.S. are in peril until agency acts.