CNN Medical Producer
Before December 22nd, except for people living near coal-burning plants, the phrase "coal fly ash" was not a part of the lexicon.
These days, coal, and specifically the waste produced when it is burned – called coal fly ash – are frequently topics of conversation, at least in Congress.
The conversation began after the largest industrial disaster in U.S. history – a spill ten times worse than Exxon Valdez.
It happened three days before Christmas, on a cold morning before dawn. A dam holding back more than one billion gallons of coal fly ash sludge trembled and finally broke, blanketing 300 acres in Kingston, Tennessee, and nearby Harriman, Tennessee. The coal ash, which was stored at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant for more than 50 years before the breach, could not be safely disposed. It was mixed with water and pumped into giant holding ponds.
There are no Federal guidelines or oversight over the more than 1300 ponds like the TVA's in the U.S. According the Environmental Protection Agency, coal ash is subject to the same regulations as household garbage.
At a press conference in Washington, Senator Barbara Boxer announced that the Environmental Protection Agency has identified 44 more sites like TVA's which pose a "high hazard" to nearby communities, but that the EPA in consultation with the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Homeland Security, will not disclose the list of sites publicly.
In a letter addressed to those agencies, Senator Boxer indicated that if a breach were to occur at any of these sites, it would "pose a threat to the lives of people nearby." Boxer also emphasized the public's right to know where the hazardous sites are located, saying that the knowledge could empower it to press local authorities to make the sites safer.
Testing revealed that coal fly ash at the TVA site was laden with toxic elements like arsenic, lead and selenium, and radioactive waste. A slew of independent studies, including a recent Duke University study, indicate that the environment, the water, and the air near the TVA plant have been contaminated, and fish pulled from the Tennessee, Clinch and Emory rivers are testing at dangerously high levels for selenium and other heavy metals.
The environment is destroyed.
Six months after the spill, families living near the TVA plant are still reeling. Their chronic health concerns include upper respiratory problems, asthma, ear infections, headaches, and nausea. Organizations monitoring the situation on the ground are reporting those, and more, health problems in people living as far as 10 miles away from Kingston: bleeding from the ears, vomiting, skin rashes, blisters, and polyps in the nose.
Many in the area fear that every day they're breathing in cancer-causing toxins. Many in the area are frightened about the future.
Now, it seems, 44 more communities like the ones in eastern Tennessee also hang in the balance.
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