[AUDIO] Finding little help from Oklahoma agencies, Bokoshe residents urge the EPA to save their town from coal ash

Published 8 years ago - 3

by Gene Perry

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Bokoshe residents Sharon Holmes and Suella Hudson hold a picture of the ash pit alongside protesters. Photo by Gene Perry.


As we approached Bokoshe, Oklahoma, a large dump truck barrelled past us on the narrow road. In the pouring rain, it sent up a heavy spray that hit our van with an audible thump.

“That was a fly ash truck,” someone said.

It was one of the 80 truckloads of ash that come every day from the AES Shady Point coal plant, 7 miles east of Bokoshe, to a dumpsite operated by the Making Money Having Fun corporation.

Residents say the coal ash has been causing serious health problems. I spoke with Diane Reece, who teaches Kindergarten and 5th and 6th grade science at the local school. She discussed the health problems affecting her and the town since they started dumping coal ash.

In 2002, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. I had one-third of my colon removed. My neighbor who rode bikes with me died of breast cancer that year. I continued to exercise.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. I had a lumpectomy and chemo with 25 radiation treatments. Two years ago, a friend who walked with me died of lung cancer, and last year, my next door neighbor was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Last week, I heard another neighbor has breast cancer. There are fifteen with serious health problems within a mile of the pit.

At school, nine out of my seventeen 6th grade students have asthma. Since kindergarten these children have attended school 1.5 miles from the fly ash pit.

Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is a byproduct from coal-burning power plants. It is frequently used as an additive in cement and other building materials, for soil stabilization, and in some types of fertilizer. The United States produces more than 100 million tons of ash every year, and a little over 40 percent of that is reused. The rest piles up in landfills like the one near Bokoshe.

Somewhat ironically, as air quality regulations tighten and the technology for keeping pollution from leaving smokestacks improves, the coal ash left behind is becoming more toxic.

Karen Lewis, a member of the group Physicians for Social Responsibility, spoke at recent EPA hearings in Dallas about some of the toxins that can be found in coal ash.

Arsenic used to be used to murder people, and it is sitting in that coal ash pit near her home. And it’s also known to be a factor in causing cancer.

Lead is a heavy metal that I went to medical school and residency and learned about how dangerous it is for young children and that when they potentially ingest it from lead-based paints we need to make sure to check their levels and if they have high levels to get them into the hospital and get them treated right away, because if we don’t they could suffer lasting consequences such as mental retardation. Lead is another metal that’s sitting there in those pits.

Other toxic trace elements that can be found in coal ash include uranium and mercury.

The Environmental Protection Agency has previously said that coal ash does not need to be regulated as a hazardous waste, but today it is reconsidering that ruling. Last Wednesday, hundreds of people from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana came to Dallas to testify about this issue. Similar hearings were held across the country.

Representatives from energy and construction businesses argued that appropriate reuse of coal ash is safe, and labeling it as a hazardous waste would harm their industry. Julie Prejean is a chemical and environmental supervisor at a Texas power plant operated by the Luminant company, and she spoke at the hearings.

Imposing a hazardous waste designation would result in an attempt to regulate using a “one size fits all” approach, which is not appropriate or warranted. It would also simultaneously destroy a viable recycling market.

Since 1993, Luminant has sold near 40 billion pounds of CCRs [coal combustion residues]. In 2009 alone, we recycled more than 2.2 billion pounds. In fact, a variety of road projects currently under way right here in north Texas are utilizing recycled coal ash from Luminant facilities.

Finally, regulation of CCRs as a hazardous waste would also increase compliance costs to the point that they could render certain fuels such as Texas lignite uneconomic. [unintelligible] estimates that each regulation could be so uneconomical that it would result in closure of coal-fueled power plants that are needed to produce affordable and reliable electricity to a state that has increasing demand for electricity, as witnessed this summer with new record consumption.

Whether or not industrial reuse is safe, Bokoshe residents like Diane Reece say that the landfill near their town is anything but, and Oklahoma state agencies are not doing anything about it.

When the Department of Mines approved the fly ash pit, I thought they would take care of us and tell us if fly ash was causing a problem. I have learned over the last 8 years that the Department of Mines does not have any idea what fly ash is doing to Bokoshe.

The state regulatory agencies have failed us. As a 2 time cancer survivor, I can’t afford much more failure.

Another Bokoshe resident, Tim Tanksley, is worried about losing land and a community that his family has lived in for generations.

Now, it’s true that I’ve lived in Bokoshe with my wife for 28 years, but I was born within a half mile of where I reside.

This land that I live on was in my family when Bokoshe was Bokoshe IT before statehood. So this is a legacy that’s been passed down to me through my family generations, and it’s a legacy that I would like to pass on to my children and grandchildren. But I’m afraid it will not happen. If they continue to dump the ash around Bokoshe, it’s not going to be a safe place for them to live.

The people of Bokoshe continue to fight with some success. They stopped construction of a second coal plant that would have doubled the amount of ash being produced near their town, and the EPA recently sanctioned Making Money Having Fun to stop dumping oil and gas wastewater at the ash pit. Now they are urging for EPA action to stop the coal ash once and for all.

As Tim’s wife, Sharon Tanksley said, “When you’re a small community against such a formidable opponent, it’s kind of like David and Goliath. We’ve just got to throw a lot of rocks.”

This is Gene Perry reporting for Voices of Oklahoma.

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3 thoughts on “[AUDIO] Finding little help from Oklahoma agencies, Bokoshe residents urge the EPA to save their town from coal ash

  • The state agencies are certainly the ones to approach. They are local and easier and quicker to motivate. They are more under our control than federal agencies. They can lead by example for other states to follow. The EPA is equivalent to a giant oil tanker that, if it gets it wrong, will take decades to correct, if ever (your article is a great example of that, where its decision cascaded into delivering this problem, rather than this solution. If corporations (or individuals) are not being good citizens, they need to be taken to court, and our states are the most agile and responsive means of doing that.

  • Chris, that’s great in theory, but is exactly why the citizens of Bokoshe and other communities near these dumps have not enjoyed adequate protection. EPA is stepping in because the state agencies have played political hot potatoe with this issue…especially in Oklahoma, disclaiming any regulatory obligations on the subject. EPA Region 6, which includes Oklahoma, is notorious for having lax environmental regulations and subsequent enforcement at the state level. Historically, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri have been dumping grounds where business interests dictate the terms of environmental quality (see Tar Creek or any of the 6 Superfund cites in OKC). The paradigm in Oklahoma has been to allow industry to self-regulate with little or no regulatory oversight/enforcement for fear of political repurcussion during the agency appropriation process. Already, our environmental agencies are understaffed and enforce regulations sparingly due to inadequate resources and pressure from agency directors and legislators. EPA’s proactive rulemaking under the Obama Administration is admirable, long-overdue, and a great step in true environmental and public health protection. Unfortunately, the EPA is having to step in because the states have failed.

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