Memphian Rep. Steve Cohen introduces bill to improve coal ash clean up

Guest Blog | April 26, 2021 | Coal, Energy Justice, Tennessee

This blog post was written by Brady Watson, former Civic Engagement Coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

U.S. Representative Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) earlier this month introduced legislation called the “Ensuring the Safe Disposal of Coal Ash Act” to strengthen the regulations surrounding coal ash clean up. Shortly after the bill’s introduction, it was discussed during a meeting of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment and Climate Change, and is expected to be made part of the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act

Coal ash is a toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity. Tennessee witnessed the tragic lack of oversight in this process with the 2008 Kingston coal ash spill in which more than a billion gallons of contaminated water and heavy-metal laden sludge from coal ash storage facilities owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) spilled, devastating the surrounding area. To date, more than 50 coal ash clean-up workers have died as a result of unsafe conditions through exposure to the toxic coal ash from this spill alone.  TVA’s Allen Fossil Plant, which is in Cohen’s district, has also had issues with coal ash – some of the storage ponds have leaked toxic water into the Memphis Sands Aquifer, which supplies drinking water for Memphis and Shelby County. 

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) Source: Francis Chung/E&E News

Cohen’s proposed bill would amend the Solid Waste Disposal Act and direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen public health and environmental requirements when dealing with coal ash. It would also reverse EPA rollbacks initiated by former President Trump such as ensuring power plants can cover costs for cleanups in the event of future spills or other disasters; banning the continued use of unlined pits for coal ash storage; and requiring full regulatory oversight of any state coal ash programs approved by the EPA. 

To address coal ash’s groundwater contamination and environmental injustice issues, the bill would deny permits to utilities seeking to close their coal ash ponds if the coal ash continues to be stored in contact with groundwater supplies. It would also compel the EPA to finalize rule-makings requiring state programs to ensure meaningful public participation, and protect low-income communities that often are disproportionately impacted by the health and environmental issues related to coal ash.

This bill is a much-needed step in the right direction to address the myriad social and environmental issues resulting from coal ash. We thank Rep. Cohen for introducing it and standing up for his constituents in Memphis, and for communities around the country who are dealing with the long-term impacts of coal ash. At the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, we firmly believe that our electricity grid can and must be powered by more clean energy from sources like wind and solar that are better for the environment and public health, without the toxic byproducts produced by burning coal. 

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