Long-term exposure to pollutants can do more than rob a community of its health, notes Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. Ali hails from Appalachia, across the river from an old coal plant. He recalls,
I watched my father go through cancer seven times, seven different cancers. And I watched my mother deal with cancer. I watched my baby sister deal with cancer. I watched my best friend’s mother and grandmother die of cancer. And our other very good friend’s father died of cancer. Sometimes it may take five, ten, fifteen years, sometimes maybe twenty years, to slowly begin to eat away at our bodies, and also at our spirits.
Going through multiple sicknesses in a family eats up time and money, as people may borrow against their homes to pay their medical bills. This means increased generational and communal insecurity—less money to pass down to children or share with neighbors or local organizations. It cuts careers short, forcing people to choose between going to school and taking care of sick family members. Pollutants like coal ash are a form of “slow violence, slow death,” Ali says, because they extract life, resources, and wealth from communities.
Industry incentives, of course, are profit-based. Companies like Duke Energy, Southern Company, DTE Energy, Talen, Ameren Corp, NRG Energy, and Luminant/Vistra Energy benefit from coal ash ponds because they are, simply, the cheapest way to dispose of coal ash. “We have about 30 percent of our energy that comes from coal,” Zierold points out. “But we are first in the world for generation of coal ash and storage.” It is one of the largest industrial waste streams here. And unlike other countries that store their coal ash in remote dumps, American industries have historically had little incentive to. Regulation has been minimal for coal plants as local, state, and federal governments favor industry investment and jobs over environmental concerns. The less these companies pay for safe disposal the more they profit.
The people who actually have to live with the effects of coal ash often have little influence in these decisions. Sometimes, this is by design, explains Lisa Evans, a senior counsel with the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice who has been working on coal ash since 2000. Before she joined Earthjustice, she worked with the Environmental Protection Agency (epa), holding town halls with communities near waste sites. She recalls how scared and angry people were, how they demanded to know what the government would do to fix their water, their air.
“I believed in that job, and I believed in their right to come to me scared and angry and looking for answers,” she says. “And it’s the government’s job to give them answers and give them some hope. And we just turn this on their heads. We don’t even let them in the door.” She goes on, “The ability for low income communities and communities of color to effectively participate in rule-making is difficult at best.” And under certain governments, such as the Trump administration, further restrictions are placed on the process that prioritize industry needs and make community feedback all but impossible. In the last four years, there have been few public meetings hosted by the epa to discuss proposed changes to coal ash rules, and a sixmonth window for the public to offer feedback on new guidelines dwindled to forty-five days.6
Because of this, we don’t know how far the consequences of coal ash actually extend. Evans notes that the epa “has not once used” data from coal companies to require any further testing of drinking-water wells near coal plants, nor any testing of local water bodies to determine how far that contamination reaches. “Our knowledge of the contamination at many plants just ends at the plant boundary, and that is a ticking time bomb,” she says.