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EPA denies Alabama’s coal ash plan featured in APR’s award-winning investigation

Residents of a Birmingham neighborhood near the closed Bluestone Coke plant, allegedly impacted by the factory's pollution.
Lynn Oldshue/APR
Residents of a Birmingham neighborhood near the closed Bluestone Coke plant, allegedly impacted by the factory's pollution.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today officially denied Alabama’s application to run a federally approved state permit program for coal ash ponds and landfills. The threat to public health posed by these chemicals was at the center of Alabama Public Radio’s investigation “Bad Chemistry.” That journalism project was honored today with three regional Edward R. Murrow awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association.

The EPA issued a denial because it says the state’s permit program is significantly less protective of people and waterways than federal law requires. APR Gulf coast correspondent Cori Yonge reported on the health concerns prompted by the mercury, arsenic, and other chemicals in coal ash. Part of that fight is in the impoverished Alabama community of Uniontown.

“The trees in that area looks like snow tipped trees with gray dust,” said Ben Eaton in a 2015 interview with APR. Eaton is president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. We caught up with him to see how things are going now. Eaton says area residents blame many of their health issues on the coal ash.

“Kidney problems, nerve problems breathing problems there are some people say that they can't stand to take showers because the water sort of burns them have such an odor they can't stand it,” he recalled.

APR first reported on Uniontown and coal ash in 2015. Yonge’s reporting expanded the issue statewide by comparing that black belt community to similar concerns along the Alabama Gulf coast. Coal ash contains heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and lead. Kris Zierold is an environmental health researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She studies coal ash in children and spoke with Yonge on the matter.

“What we’re seeing are neurobehavioral problems and mental health problems,” she said.

Zierold says in adults - long-term health problems from living near coal ash may not appear right away.

“Chronically you can see things like COPD, cancers. There's a latency period with Cancers usually between 10 and 20 years,” Zierold said.

Zierold and Eaton agree without more studies, it’s hard to prove a connection between the landfill ash and health problems. So Eaton’s group recently started monitoring air quality in the county.

“If it's the smallest. The smallest of things. We want to take notice because it means something,” Eaton said.

The EPA says the difference between how the federal government would safeguard the public from the threat posed by coal ash, and how Alabama would handle the issue, prompted the Agency to say no to the State’s plan to govern ponds and landfills like the ones Yonge reported on in Uniontown and along the Gulf coast.

“EPA is laser focused on protecting people from exposure to pollution, like coal ash, that can cause cancer risks and other serious health issues,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in a news release. “Our job is to work closely with states to make sure that every community is protected from contamination, and that’s especially true for those that have been overburdened by pollution for too long. EPA stands ready to continue working with Alabama so that they can submit an approvable application and implement a program that is as protective of public health as the federal standards.”

The Radio Television Digital News Association recognized Alabama Public Radio with regional Murrow awards for Best Documentary, Best Series, and Excellence in Writing. All three honors were for the “Bad Chemistry” investigation that included Cori Yonge’s reporting on coal ash. Other segments in APR’s eight month effort addressed the twentieth anniversary of the city of Anniston’s settlement with Monsanto over alleged contamination by chemicals called PCBs. The project also focused on how Agent Orange may be impacting the health of 117,000 Alabama military veterans, and how the Bluestone Coke plant in Birmingham is allegedly threatening local neighborhoods two years after it was shut down.

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  • It’s been two decades since the chemical company Monsanto settled a lawsuit with Anniston residents. People there said Monsanto exposed them to chemicals called PCBs which caused birth defects and cancer. But Monsanto is far from the only alleged instance of industrial chemicals harming Alabama neighborhoods. The APR News team presents this documentary we call, "Bad Chemistry."
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  • 2023 marks two decades since the Monsanto Chemical Company settled a lawsuit with residents of Anniston, Alabama. Twenty thousand townspeople blamed illnesses like cancer and birth defects on exposure to chemicals known as PCBs. Monsanto manufactured these products at its plant southeast of town. This isn’t the only example of industrial chemicals allegedly harming Alabama residents.
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