Story by Jillian Randel
Elisa Young discovered coal ash innundating her community of Meigs County, Ohio, shortly after moving to her family’s farm. She has since dedicated her life’s work to stopping the discriminate dumping of the ash in her community. Photo by Daniel Shea (dsheaphoto.net)
Elisa Young walked to the front of the room, slammed down a jar of blackberry ginger crepe syrup and a ziploc bag of coal ash in front of the three Environmental Protection Agency government officials.
“Think about the blackberries growing in the unlined coal ash ditches of Meigs County when you eat that,” she said. “And the chickens who can’t free range anymore for fear of drinking out of the puddles, or dusting their feathers in the coal ash.”
Forces on the Front
Elisa Young is an eighth generation Appalachian. Her German ancestors—a group of nine brothers—all fought in the revolutionary war. Six generations ago, her Welsh ancestors immigrated here and started a boarding house for Welsh miners and a school for local young women. She is the great-great-granddaughter of a coal miner. Young’s roots are as embedded in this land as the coal itself.
In 2000, Young moved to Meigs County, Ohio, to be caretaker of her family’s farm. Meigs County lies on the Ohio River, separating Ohio and West Virginia. The area is home to the second largest concentration of coal-fired power plants in the country. Four of the 18 plants along the Ohio River are located within 12 miles of Young’s home.
Young’s grandfather ran a dairy farm on their land. When she moved, Young brought her chickens and heirloom plants with her. She had plans to turn the farm into a sustainable living and teaching center.
“Since I had as much to learn as anyone it made sense to me to start with workshops to bring people in to teach so that many of us could learn together,” said Young. She began hosting native teachers to do herb walks and started construction on a straw bale structure.
Her plans were soon dashed when she discovered coal ash in her community.
“I had seen those smoke stacks on the horizon for as long as I can remember as a child, but I never thought anything about it,” said Young. “When I asked my grandma what they were, she shrugged and said, ‘Oh, honey, that’s just where they make the electricity.’”
Coal Ash Communities
Coal ash is the waste produced from burning coal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 150 million tons of coal ash is produced each year, most produced from coal-fired electric power plants. Coal ash is laden with heavy metals and poisons such as arsenic, lead, barium, cadmium, mercury and chromium.
Coal ash is currently disposed of in impoundments known as coal ash ponds, or as a “beneficial use” product. The coal ash labeled as beneficial use can be applied to fill in road gullies, to build up land for construction, as fill for abandoned mines, or in products such as cinder blocks, running tracks and roofing shingles. Young first noticed coal ash being used in her county for road maintenance.
“The coal ash that comes into Meigs County proper is from the power plants in Mason County, W.Va., and across the Meigs County line in Gallia County, Ohio,” said Young. “None of it is being generated in Meigs. We have no idea how much is making its way into our county, or where it’s coming from—including outside of our direct area.”
According to the Physicians for Social Responsibility report on coal ash:
“If eaten, drunk or inhaled, these toxicants can cause cancer and nervous system impacts such as cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. They can also cause heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.”
Mason and Gallia County are littered with coal ash ponds and landfills, some of which are on the EPA’s potential high hazard list. There is currently no federal regulation on lining the ponds and landfills, which would add a barrier between the earth and ground and water supplies. A report by Earth Justice confirmed toxic leaching at 137 coal ash ponds in 34 states.
Further complicating the matter is that Meigs County is the only county in the state that does not have a Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) report.
“If you were a power plant and wanted to get rid of waste where no one would have to keep a record of receiving it, do you think you might prefer a county with no TRI inventory accounting?” questioned Young. “I do.”
Coal ash became a widely recognized toxin when it hit the media during the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill—5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash broke out of an impoundment and flooded 300 acres of land and two nearby rivers.
A Likely Carcinogen
According to EPA reports, “If you live near an unlined wet ash pond and you get your water from a well, you may have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water.”
It didn’t take long for Young to realize that something was seriously wrong. “I’ve lost 6 neighbors to cancer,” said Young. “Every Sunday more people are added to the prayer list.”
“I’ve had melanoma,” continued Young. “I’m past the seven year mark for survival, but I also now have precancerous conditions for breast and thyroid cancer, but no health insurance to get the recommended follow-up treatment since the biopsies. I try not to think about it.”
Ohio Department of Health reports show that Meigs County has the second highest rate of death from cancer in the state (second to Perry County, also a large coal-producing area) and the highest rate of death for lung and bronchus cancer.
Young obtained the tax plot map of the townships in her county and started highlighting the people on her road that had been touched by cancer. Most of the lands were highlighted.
“I remember when Helen got cancer, she lived just around the corner—less than a 1/2 mile away,” said Young. “My heart sank. She was the closest person to a saint I’ve ever known.”
“You could see the power plant emissions from [Helen’s] porch. It’s a hard thing. Her husband retired from AEP (American Electric Power) as an electrician. There are several people on our road who worked for them. But we all feel the consequences—whether it was us that collected the paycheck or not.”
Another factor contributing to poor health in Meigs County is the high rates of uninsured residents. The state health department lists Meigs among the eight Ohio counties with the fewest primary care physicians per person.
According to the Ohio Dept. of Health:
Meigs County has the highest rate of uninsured children (18.6% compared to the state average of 9.8%) and second highest rate of uninsured people for all ages (17.9% compared to the state average of 11.2%). Patient ratio: 3,852 people per physician compared to the state average of 852 people per physician).
The county also suffers from one of the highest rates of asthma incidence in the state and has no hospital. Without primary care physicians or health insurance, people in Meigs County are less likely to have early detection of illness and have less of an ability to afford care once they have been diagnosed.
It isn’t just humans that are affected by coal ash either. Several of Young’s neighbors report cattle and poultry losses to cancer, and many hunters have found tumors in the deer they’ve shot. Young’s dog, Charlie, was found with inoperable cancer in his brain and throughout his digestive track and lungs. She lost him six months after he was diagnosed.
Rewriting the Regulations
Last fall, the EPA held several public hearings and commentary on two proposed regulations for handling coal ash. One option would require that coal ash be federally regulated and would classify the ash as a hazardous material. A second option will allow coal ash to remain a non-hazardous waste and would continue to be regulated state by state.
Young favors the first option, but only if there are additional regulations for beneficial use. Stricter regulations will make storing the ash more costly for the coal industry, so without any provisions for this, more of it will be applied as beneficial use in communities like hers.
“It may be beneficial to industry,” said Young. “But not to us.”
Young is among the most outspoken opponents of the coal industry, focusing her most recent efforts on coal ash. “The people who get active are the people who know how they are being affected,” she said.
She has been involved in community organizing and educational outreach to civic, state and national groups, and worked on various documentaries including Coal Country. In 2006, she received the Women of Peace Power Foundation Award for her activity in the True Cost of Coal tours.
“Every time another person dies, it’s made it harder for me to ignore what the consequences of trying to stay here are,” said Young. “But, I don’t think any industry has the right to render an entire region unsuitable to sustain life. No one has that right.”
To find the distribution of coal ash ponds in your area, visit www.sierraclub.org/coal/coalash