July 13, 2016: This story has been clarified.
BOKOSHE, Oklahoma — Here in the land of wind-whipped, rolling plains, the gray dust, which sparkles in just the right light, seems inescapable. Residents of this town near the Arkansas line say they have spotted it on their grass, trees, ponds, barns, furniture and cars.
The source of Bokoshe’s enduring misery is coal ash, an often-toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity. Clouds of it, swirling like tornadoes at times, descend upon people while they sit in their yards and mow their lawns. The powdery material clogs swimming pools, air conditioners and chicken coops.
The ash, which contains harmful metals such as arsenic, chromium and lead, comes from a state-permitted disposal pit — operated by a company named Making Money Having Fun — fed by a power plant eight miles outside of town. Residents here began complaining about the dust to state regulators in 1998. More than a decade later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got involved and in 2014 finally acknowledged that the pit has shown “evidence” of escaping coal ash dust. But the grime that coats the town has not gone.
“I can look out onto the dump … and see the ash dust balloon up,” says Tim Tanksley, a Bokoshe native who lives a mile from the pit. He and some of his neighbors filed a class-action lawsuit against the pit operator and others, only to see the case dismissed.
What is happening in Bokoshe is a microcosm of a fierce — some say one-sided — battle over coal ash that has dragged on in Washington’s corridors of power for nearly four decades — and is not over yet. After a disastrous, billion-gallon spill of coal ash in Tennessee in late 2008, the EPA pledged to regulate this industrial waste. It then sat on its plan for five years. When agency officials finally acted, they chose the minimalist approach, setting baseline national standards for coal ash disposal at more than 1,400 sites nationwide while leaving regulation essentially up to the states. Under the coal ash rule, the agency has no authority to enforce its own requirements. At the same time, EPA officials determined that so-called beneficial uses, like the recycling that fills the pit here, could continue.
Utility companies and ash recyclers say such uses are safe if voluntary industry guidelines are followed. For some uses, however, the science argues otherwise. And for others, regulation has been passed on to the U.S. Department of Interior — which has been studying the issue for nearly a decade.
Meanwhile, residents of Bokoshe cannot help but feel victimized by what they say amounts to a cruel regulatory hoax — with no end in sight.
“They’re still dumping it, and we’re still breathing it,” Tanksley says of the coal ash. “It’s still making people sick.”