The Environmental Protection Agency is holding hearings next week over whether to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. To see why this is so important, check out this Voices of Oklahoma article from April 2009 about how coal ash is affecting the small Oklahoma town of Bokoshe. The hearing will be on Wednesday, September 8, 2010, 10:00am-9:30pm at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas. Voices of Oklahoma will be there to report what happens.
by Gene Perry
Bridget Wood describes her first visit to Bokoshe, OK as “the day that changed my life forever.”
At first glance, Bokoshe is just like any other small Oklahoma town. Its total area is only 0.5 square miles. The center of activity is a local cafe. As of the 2000 census, it was home to 450 people and 121 families, many of whom had lived there for generations.
But soon after arriving in Bokoshe, Wood suspected something was wrong. A gray dust hung over the town, covering vehicles and other exposed surfaces.
“You instantly have stuff in the corner of your eyes,” she said. “You can taste it. It tastes like a battery.”
On door after door, Wood saw “No Smoking, Oxygen In Use” signs.
She first came to Bokoshe to report on a proposal by the AES Corporation to expand its nearby coal power plant. AES already operates a 320 MW plant 7 miles east of Bokoshe, and the fly ash dump site for the plant is located just outside of town.
Fly ash is a light powder residue left over from the burning of coal. According to the EPA, it contains many toxic elements including arsenic, lead, mercury, uranium, and dioxins.
Disposal of fly ash is not federally regulated, although according to The New York Times, “numerous studies have shown that the ash can leach toxic substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humans.”
The True Cost of Electricity
In Bokoshe, Wood said she has met residents on their second or third bouts of cancer. She’s talked to people who have lost spouses and parents to cancer or kids to leukemia. Others suffer from asthma, congestive heart disease, or digestive problems.
“You have to look for somebody that’s not sick,” she said.
Bokoshe resident Harold Summers said in a video taken by Wood that 7 out of 11 of his neighbors have had cancer, including Summers’ wife, who died in 2007, and his granddaughter.
“The cost of electricity does not come in the form of your power bill,” Wood said. “It comes in the form of people’s lives.”
The EPA considered labeling fly ash as a hazardous waste in 2000 but backed off after the coal industry claimed it would be too expensive. Ironically, stricter air quality regulations have led to a dramatic increase in production of the ash in recent years. Pollutants that used to be emitted in smokestacks are now captured as solid waste.
“The cleaner that you burn it, the dirtier that fly ash is going to be,” Wood said.
For the AES Shady Point coal-fired plant, that waste is sent to Bokoshe at the rate of a truckload every 8-12 minutes. The ash is mixed with water and poured into a former coal mine managed by the M.M.H.F. (Making Money Having Fun) corporation.
But as seen in the video below, large clouds of ash frequently escape the site and head towards Bokoshe.
The video mentions a proposed Shady Point 2 coal plant, but AES withdrew its permit application in February amid rising criticism from Bokoshe residents and other groups. However, the dumping from the original plant continues.
Wood has collected dozens of testimonials from residents of Bokoshe and other fly ash dump sites. A couple are included below, and the rest can be found at http://www.youtube.com/user/coalfighter.
What Can You Do?
Until recently, the people of Bokoshe did not know about the toxins they were being exposed to in fly ash. Thanks to the efforts of Wood and others, many now understand the dangers, and they are organizing against them. They can be contacted through their website at http://www.intheairwebreathe.com.
The next Oklahoma DEQ Air Quality meeting will be held 9 a.m., July 15th at 707 N. Robinson, Oklahoma City. The meeting is open to the public, and a strong showing can help convince regulators to investigate the problem.
“One of the reasons that they haven’t implemented restrictions is that no one has ever asked for them,” Wood said.