When Paul Kysel moved to Pines, Indiana, in 1990, he had no idea he would soon become part of a years-long battle over his community’s public and environmental health.

Kysel and his family didn’t know it when they moved in, but their house was only a mile from a closed dump site where, for almost 20 years, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) dumped its toxic coal ash. Coal ash is the by-product of burning coal for electricity and it’s loaded with toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium, and aluminum. Coal ash is also known to be radioactive.

As Kysel discovered, the toxic coal ash dump affected the whole town of Pines. Much of the coal ash had even been used to construct town roads and given out to residents as free fill dirt. The dump was also in direct contact with the shallow aquifer that provided the well water for Pines.

Why was NIPSCO allowed to dump toxic coal ash in an unlined area and distribute it as filler to the town? Because right now there are no federal safeguards. Current coal ash regulation is only done on the state level–and states have an inadequate or non-existent patchwork of rules, with many treating the toxic material like household garbage.

Pines isn’t alone in this struggle against a nearby unlined and unregulated coal ash dump site. There are more than 500 coal ash storage sites nationwide–and no nationwide federal safeguard to protect those communities.

It got worse for Kysel and Pines. Well water tests showed heavy metal contamination. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry June 2002 report, “Since April 2000, approximately 55 residential wells in the town of Pines, and 14 landfill monitoring wells have been sampled…arsenic, boron, manganese, and lead have been detected in residential wells at levels similar or equal to those associated with adverse health effects noted in scientific literature.”

The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academy of Sciences have years of research making it clear that coal ash is becoming increasingly toxic and poses a threat to human health.

Kysel joined forces with his neighbors and formed the People In Need of Environmental Safety (PINES) organization–which helped pay for more water testing and fought for involvement from the EPA.

In 2002, the EPA required NIPSCO to start bringing in bottled water for affected residents. As the testing continued over the years, more and more families required water to be trucked in–and soon NIPSCO had to hook the community up to a nearby municipality’s water supply. The entire community’s water supply was contaminated by coal ash, and the dump is now considered a Superfund alternative site.

The EPA is now considering federal safeguards on coal ash. It has proposed two very different options: Either to treat coal ash as the toxic waste as it is, or to maintain the status quo.

This is why Paul Kysel and thousands of others attended EPA coal ash hearings around the country this summer. Many people who live near coal ash dump sites are also submitting their comments to the EPA calling for the stronger of the two options.

For Kysel, it’s about protecting other towns from ending up like Pines, where it’s been proven that the coal ash heavy metals do leech out and affect the local groundwater and environment.

The EPA must treat coal waste as a hazardous substance.

We need consistent and enforceable federal regulations to prevent future coal ash disasters–regulations that promote safe coal ash recycling (and not dumping disguised as recycling) and protect the environment from toxic leaching at the same time.

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Michael Brune

Michael Brune, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club the nation's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, is the author of "Coming Clean—Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal." www.sierraclub.org

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