Coal Ash in Our Stockings

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, “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.

Related Stories: 

Don’t Drink the Water: Coal Industry Creates Third-World Conditions in United States Today

Tribe Stops Mining Company From Destroying Their Land

Pro-Coal Rally in Colorado Reveals Fear of Clean Energy

Photo credit: geograph
by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger


Past Member 7 years ago

i seem to remember that california power and gas were in a huge lawsuit from hinkley california for the chromium in the water...this was the cancer causing chromium....erin brockavich was in this made her why is this now a problem across the rest of the country??...has the epa just been sitting on their ass since this lawsuit??? i'd suggest that they get busy and fix the mess before they kill so many others...they cannot say they are not aware of this problem..if i know about it..they have to know....not rocket science folks...get with it now..and do you jobs...

joanna e.
joanna e7 years ago

When I was young (a long time ago) ,if there was a threat to our drinking water the government was active about it. Today, because of
the positioning of the Republican party one wonders if anything can be done about contaminated drinking water and each environmental issue. What goes here? Are Republicans stupid?

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Jennifer Martin
Jennifer M7 years ago

Human, animal, and environmental health should ALWAYS trump profits. Sadly, society is completely screwed up, which in turn makes us all, well, screwed.

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman7 years ago

Noted, thanx

mariya s.
Mari S7 years ago

Let's keep fighting the fight for change to a greener society.

Gwendolyn offline
Gwendolyn Krupa7 years ago

Much worse than coal in our stocking!!!

ilse D.
.7 years ago

Thank you, though I'm not surprised.

Lin Moy
Lin M7 years ago

A sign of The End??

Danuta W.
Danuta W7 years ago

thanks for the article