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The Biden administration says it has a plan to clean up toxic coal ash

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, the Biden administration said it plans to do more to clean up coal ash sites across the country. That's the highly toxic waste that's left after coal is burned for electricity. As Amy Green of member station WMFE reports, as much as half the nation's coal ash is unregulated by the EPA.

AMY GREEN, BYLINE: In Orlando, a 175-foot pile of coal ash looms as a stark symbol of this booming region's reliance on fossil fuels.

PIPER VARGAS: Here - yeah, you can see, this just looks like dirt piles.

GREEN: Piper Vargas is a local resident and activist. The coal ash landfill might be easy to miss right beside two towering coal plants. Vargas lives six miles from the Orlando landfill with her husband and two young sons.

VARGAS: What happens to the waste from after when they burn it? That was something that nobody - most people don't think about or know about what they do with that toxic waste.

GREEN: Coal ash represents one of the largest streams of industrial waste in the country. The waste usually is disposed of in vast watery impoundments called ponds or, like in Orlando, dry landfills. The coal ash contains toxic contaminants like mercury and arsenic that are associated with cancer and other ailments. Many disposal sites are unlined or poorly lined, and groundwater contamination has been documented in 39 states and Puerto Rico. Wind also can carry dust particles from the sites for miles, and the contaminants can pollute the surrounding environment and be inhaled by residents. Here's Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

FRANK HOLLEMAN: It's a ticking time bomb and a long-term slow polluter, as well as, at any time, it's a disaster waiting to happen.

GREEN: The Obama administration in 2015 enacted the nation's first rules for coal ash because of disasters in Tennessee and North Carolina where massive amounts of the toxic waste spilled into local rivers. But the rules extend only to existing and new disposal sites. Dumping that stopped before the rules took effect is exempt. Environmental watchdogs like Lisa Evans of Earthjustice want the Biden administration to close the loophole now as more and more coal plants shut down.

LISA EVANS: You're going to have this poisonous legacy which could last permanently in many, many sites.

GREEN: The Biden administration says it will start enforcing rules to clean up coal ash ponds to protect groundwater, and Evans hopes more regulations follow. In Orlando, the municipal utility has dumped coal ash for nearly 30 years at a landfill situated among several middle- and upper-class residential neighborhoods. Raquel Fernandez of the Sierra Club is sitting in a park in one of them.

RAQUEL FERNANDEZ: It's a beautiful community. And like I said, it's very, very family-friendly. I mean, we're, like, across from a daycare where the kids are playing outside.

GREEN: The dumping stopped at the oldest part of the landfill 52 days before the new rules took effect, exempting the toxic waste from the regulations and, if any problems are found, a requirement to take corrective action. In 2018, a lawsuit filed on behalf of the area's some 30,000 residents alleged the site was responsible for a cancer cluster, including certain kinds of pediatric cancer. Utility spokesman Tim Trudell says the claims were unsupported by sound science, and the plaintiffs dropped the suit in 2020.

TIM TRUDELL: OUC understands that we have a responsibility to our community. We've always felt that way. We will continue to monitor that site for as long as it takes.

GREEN: Meanwhile, the utility has a plan to abandon coal-based power generation altogether and transition to cleaner energy sources. But Trudell says there are no immediate plans for relocating the coal ash.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Green in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.