Honoring Black History Month and the Path Towards Energy Justice: Coal Ash Testimony at US Commission on Civil Rights

This blog was written by Amelia Shenstone, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | February 10, 2016 | Coal, Energy Justice, Energy Policy

This blog is the second in our 2016 Black History Month series honoring advocates and opportunities to advance energy justice. To read other blogs in this series, click here.

On February 5 I had the honor to accompany local and national advocates to Washington, DC for a briefing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights regarding the environmental justice impacts of toxic coal ash. Together, we delivered an unequivocal message to the Commission: Communities are suffering from this byproduct of burning coal for electricity, and EPA’s rules leave a lot to be desired to protect us.

Powerful messengers

Uniontown, AL resident Esther Calhoun (left) started the day off with a passionate account of the many environmental injustices in her town, including a leaky landfill containing coal ash removed from the Emory River after a catastrophic spill at a coal plant in Kingston, TN. Rev. Leo Woodberry addressed the trouble with coal ash storage in South Carolina, where it is being removed from rivers but many remain concerned about where it will eventually end up.

Later, the Commission pointedly questioned the attorney representing the landfill in Ms. Calhoun’s community. He maintained that everything was shipshape, and to support his case showed a picture of the bald eagle that has recently come to enjoy the area.

SACE’s Amelia Shenstone listens as Arrowhead Landfill attorney Michael Smith testifies on the coal ash industry & advocacy panel

In my statement I summarized how coal-fired energy takes a toll on human health from cradle to grave – from mining coal, transporting it, burning it for energy, to storage of the toxic coal ash waste that’s left behind. According to the NAACP, among the 6 million Americans living within 3 miles of a coal plant, the per capita income is about $3,000 lower than the national average, and the percentage of people of color is higher. 70% of coal ash dumps are in low-income communities.

To best protect all communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color that are disproportionately located near coal plants, coal ash should be stored dry, in lined facilities, away from waterways and groundwater, and EPA should ensure well water is tested within one mile of all ash sites. EPA’s rules currently fall short of assuring that level of protection.

You can read my statement here (PDF) and see the accompanying slides here. Statements submitted by all the panelists, including EarthJustice, Environmental Integrity Project, Waterkeeper Alliance, and North Carolina Congresswoman Alma Adams, are available on the Commission’s website.

Taking the environmental justice message to the top

The Commission was created as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to inform national policies. It is comprised of eight appointees, half appointed by the President and half by Congress. Its mission is below:

Established as an independent, bipartisan, fact-finding federal agency, our mission is to inform the development of national civil rights policy and enhance enforcement of federal civil rights laws. We pursue this mission by studying alleged deprivations of voting rights and alleged discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice. We play a vital role in advancing civil rights through objective and comprehensive investigation, research, and analysis on issues of fundamental concern to the federal government and the public.

Commissioners respond to the day’s testimony

In 2016, the Commission is reviewing civil rights implications of EPA’s policies and will provide a report to Congress and the President by September 30. EPA recently released two new rules related to coal ash, therefore the Commission held this day-long briefing to hear from several panels of impacted people, experts and industry representatives about environmental justice and coal ash.

Congress has unfortunately been more counterproductive than supportive when it comes to coal ash clean-up. The House passed HR 1734 in 2015, which would greatly weaken EPA’s coal ash rule. Senators Manchin and Hoevin proposed the nearly-identical S. 2446 in January, 2016 as a way to “fix” the coal ash rule (sign our petition to stop this bill here).

I am encouraged by the Commissioners’ responses to our briefing, especially their rigorous questioning of EPA officials and coal ash industry representatives. Hopefully their final report will help preserve the coal ash protections we have, and in the long run, bring full justice for the communities most impacted by this toxic waste.

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