Coal Ash and Bokoshe, OK
Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is a light powder residue left over from the burning of coal. According to the EPA, it contains many toxic elements including arsenic, lead, mercury, uranium, and dioxins. Disposal of fly ash is not federally regulated, although according to The New York Times, “numerous studies have shown that the ash can leach toxic substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humans.”
The EPA considered labeling fly ash as a hazardous waste in 2000 but backed off after the coal industry claimed it would be too expensive. Ironically, stricter air quality regulations have led to a dramatic increase in production of the ash in recent years. Pollutants that used to be emitted in smokestacks are now captured as solid waste.
Bokoshe is a small town in eastern Oklahoma. Its total area is only 0.5 square miles. The center of activity is a local cafe. As of the 2000 census, it was home to 450 people and 121 families, many of whom had lived there for generations. But Bokoshe is also home to a coal ash dump site managed by the M.M.H.F. (Making Money Having Fun) corporation. Waste from the AES Shady Point power plant 7 miles east of Bokoshe is sent to the town at the rate of a truckload every 8-12 minutes. The ash is mixed with water and poured into a former coal mine.
Today, many residents are on their second or third bouts of cancer. Many have lost spouses and parents to cancer or kids to leukemia. Others suffer from asthma, congestive heart disease, or digestive problems. According to Bokoshe resident Harold Summers, 7 out of 11 of his neighbors have had cancer, including Summers’ wife, who died in 2007, and his granddaughter.
The people of Bokoshe continue to fight with some success. They stopped construction of a second coal plant that would have doubled the amount of ash being produced near their town, and the EPA has sanctioned Making Money Having Fun to stop dumping oil and gas wastewater at the ash pit. Now they are urging for EPA action to stop the coal ash once and for all.