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Civil rights commission chastises EPA's handling of coal ash

The U.S. EPA's final coal ash rule"disproportionately" impacts racial minorities and low-incomecommunities, and the agency should classify coal ash as "specialwaste," the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote in a report submitted tothe president and other high-ranking elected officials.

"EPA continues to struggle to provide procedural andsubstantive relief to communities of color impacted by pollution," thecommission wrote. "EPA does not take action when faced with environmentaljustice concerns until forced to do so. When they do act, they make easychoices and outsource any environmental justice responsibilities onto others."

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EPA's Office ofCivil Rights enforces federal civil rights laws that prohibit discriminationagainst members of the public by recipients of EPA funds and protect employeesand prospective employees from discrimination.

The commission criticized the Office of Civil Rights, whichit contends "has never made a formal finding of discrimination and hasnever denied or withdrawn financial assistance from a recipient in its entirehistory, and has no mandate to demand accountability within the EPA."

The commission held briefings earlier this year as part ofits efforts to examine the EPA's civil rights enforcement practices,especially in regard to coal ash storage.

The EPA's final coal ash rule was in December 2014 and in 2015. The rule setsguidelines for proper closure of coal ash sites and ash management, includingmonitoring groundwater, keeping waste sites away from water bodies andmandating new reporting from utilities.

"Racial minorities and low income communities aredisproportionately affected by the siting of waste disposal facilities andoften lack political and financial clout to properly bargain with polluterswhen fighting a decision or seeking redress," the commission wrote in itsreport. "The EPA did not fully consider the civil rights impacts inapproving movement and storage of coal ash."

Enforcement of the coal ash rule largely falls underlawsuits from citizen groups ensuring that utilities follow regulationdeadlines.

"This system requires low-income and communities ofcolor to collect complex data, fund litigation and navigate the federal courtsystem — the very communities that the environmental justice principles weredesigned to protect," the commission wrote in its report."The EPA should provide assistance to affected communities to help enforcethe Coal Ash Rule. In addition, the EPA should test drinking water wells, andassess high-risk coal-ash dams and coal ash disposal sites."

The rule also does not regulate coal ash as hazardous waste.The commission argues that coal ash should be classified as "specialwaste" with federal funding earmarked for research into the health impactof coal ash exposure.

"Not only do the toxic substances found in coal ashbecome absorbed up the food chain, but they also contaminate the environment(humans and animals) through spills, dam leaks, and sewage pipe breaks,"the commission wrote.

The focus on the EPA's operations is a follow-up to a 2003report called"Not in my Backyard," which explored civil rights enforcement in thecontext of environmental justice at the EPA and several other federal agencies.The report found some successes in enforcement activities, but the EPA inparticular was slammed for having an excessive backlog in compliance and a lackof clear legal standards.

The 2016 report also follows high-profile coal ashspills at 'sKingston coalplant in 2008 and Duke EnergyCorp.'s DanRiver plant in 2014.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality saidin April that it will conduct an environmental justice review for each coal ash landfillapplication filed by Duke Energy to protect minority communities. The DEQ saidit will ask the EPA's Office of Civil Rights, the U.S. Commission on CivilRights and the North Carolina Advisory Committee to review and approve itsenvironmental justice analysis before a permit is issued.