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Reject the dirty politics of coal ash for clean water

Florida's drinking waters are slowly being poisoned by a silent toxic menace. If certain members of Congress have their way, federal regulators will never be able to do anything about it. At Tampa Electric's Big Bend Station near Apollo Beach, arsenic, boron, molybdenum and other toxic chemicals that can cause cancer and organ damage have already contaminated groundwater supplies. The cause: coal ash.

Big Bend and hundreds of other coal-fired power plants just like it burn millions of tons of coal every year. The resulting ash is often filled with toxic chemicals like arsenic, mercury, lead, chromium and more. Enough coal ash is generated each year to fill train cars stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole. This toxic waste is dumped into unlined and unmonitored landfills and ponds that contaminate nearby lakes, rivers, streams, creeks and aquifers that supply local residents with drinking water.

As a Florida physician, I know the health impacts these pollutants can have. Chronic exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause cancers of the skin, bladder, lung and kidney. Lead, a potent neurotoxicant, can contribute to developmental delays, decreased intelligence, behavioral problems, kidney disease and death. Mercury, another neurotoxicant, is particularly harmful to the developing nervous system and can cause developmental delays, mental retardation and behavioral problems. Chromium, if ingested via contaminated water, can cause anemia and stomach cancer. Inhaled, chromium can cause lung cancer, breathing problems and nose ulcers. Ingestion of large amounts of boron, through food or drink, can result in damage to the testes, intestines, liver, kidney and brain.

As a pediatrician, I'm particularly concerned about children and pregnant women. Children are the most vulnerable as their organs are still developing, especially the brain, and their exposure is greater as they eat, breathe and drink more per unit of body weight than adults.

These toxic pollutants in coal ash are poisoning rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers at nearly 200 sites across the country, and nothing is being done to stop it. Much worse, Congress is considering an amendment to a transportation bill intended to improve our roads and highways that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from ever doing anything about it. The contamination at Tampa Electric's site is not the only case in Florida; at least six other coal ash dump sites, in Orlando, Jacksonville, Palatka, Lakeland, Sneads and Pensacola, have had coal ash pollution contaminate nearby waters.

The EPA found that the risk of cancer from drinking water near some unlined coal ash ponds is 2,000 times the EPA's regulatory goal. Even though this cancer risk is greater than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, some ideological members of Congress want to prevent federal agencies from doing anything to protect our health and our children's health.

If Congress passes this outrageous amendment, disposal of household garbage would be better regulated than the cancer-causing pollutants found in coal ash. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio have the opportunity to reject this amendment and pass legislation free of any favors to big polluters. They should.

Health problems like asthma and autism are increasing at a worrisome rate in children, and we shouldn't allow more pollution into our waters that could compound their sickness. Florida deserves better. Clean water is one of our state's greatest resources, and the pollution from coal ash can be safely contained if there is the desire to make these companies clean up their mess. Tying up much-needed legislation that would create American jobs by improving our roads and highways with unrelated favors to the coal and power industries is just plain wrong.

Dr. Lynn Ringenberg is an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of South Florida. She retired from the Army in 2003 as a colonel. She co-founded Physicians for Social Responsibility Tampa Bay with Dr. Don Mellman in 2008.

Reject the dirty politics of coal ash for clean water 05/26/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 26, 2012 5:31am]
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