Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It feels like the whole world is covered in fly ash....

Sue Hudson moved to Bokoshe, Oklahoma with her husband in 1978. They had been living in Ohio running a canoe outfitter when they decided to start a new life. He had gone ahead of her, scouting for a business for them to run. "I sent him with strict instructions that I didn't want to live in Oklahoma, and I didn't run a convenience store, I don't know what part of that he forgot, but it is exactly what he came back with."
In 1992 the AES Shady Point Power Plant went online 6 miles from their home. Soon after going online, the Smith Strip pit opened and AES started hauling fly ash past their home and business to the dump site one mile to the South East. Later, a second pit called the Thumbs Up Ranch operated by Making Money Having Fun opened up a few years later that is still in operation today. "That is when we started to get the blowing dust from the South and the West" Sue said. It was a disaster to the Hudson's.  "You have to stop and think" says Sue "eight trucks, running ten loads a day, every ten minutes they go by my house. Fly ash is blowing on the way in and on the way out."

Living in rural Bokoshe, Oklahoma used to be an idyllic life. A simple living with several gardens in the yard. The plentiful bounty making it's way to the dinner table. Now, living on a fixed income still isn't enough to make use of the scant fruit off of her apple tree. "You can't eat them. They are dirty, covered in  fly ash."

"It doesn't matter, not much grows here anymore anyway" she says. "We used to have big gardens that grew lots of food, but not anymore, not since the fly ash started. "You wouldn't want to eat it anyway. You can stand in the front yard and feel the grit hitting your face when the trucks go by." She continues  "At times there has been so much dust down at the corner by Sassy's cafe we have to turn on our headlights so the other cars can see us."

Life has been hard for Sue since the AES Shady Point Power Plant started dumping near her home. Her daughter Charlotte who lived next door to her since 1989, was diagnosed in 2004 from third stage Cancer in her lungs, lymph nodes and liver. She died 17 days later. Countless friends and neighbors have battled cancer and breathing problems. "Sometimes it feels like the whole world is covered in fly ash" says Sue. While I am taking notes at her dining room table, another fly ash truck rumbles past and I can feel the vibration thru my pen.
A fly ash truck drives past sue Hudson's home.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Meet the people of Bokoshe

Meet *Rose.

 Rose is eleven years old and in the sixth grade in the Bokoshe public schools. She lives within a few miles of three fly ash pits, two of them active. One is “real close, less than a mile away from my house” she says.

Rose has asthma. “I can’t go outside, because it (the fly ash dump) is so close. I can’t stay outside for very long because I get choked up. If I play on the trampoline for very long, I have an attack…then I can’t breathe.” Rose attempts to take a deep breath as if testing her lungs and says “just earlier I had to take my inhaler because I laughed too hard.”

I met Rose in an administrator’s office at the Bokoshe Public Schools. She was eager to talk with me and came at her mother’s urging. Other children were clamoring around me outside the office volunteering to tell their stories of breathing difficulties and fear of the pit itself. Rose says “if I get around it or see it, I can’t function because it scares me.”

The Bokoshe School serves 250 students from the town and surrounding area. The fly ash dumpsite, operated by Making Money Having Fun, is operating 1.5 miles from the schools. Every day 80 trucks make their way to the dumpsite filled to capacity with 40 tons of fly ash and scrubber sludge that is known to contain mercury, lead and arsenic. Fugitive dust leaves the site and prevailing winds take it directly to the school and surrounding homes where the people who live there breathe it in.

The area is littered with old strip pits and dump sites where the pits have been “reclaimed”. “My brothers used to swim in the strip pits, but now my mother won’t let them” Rose says. I asked Rose if she knew what all the commotion in her small town was about, if she knew what was in the fly ash and she said “Fly ash is burnt coal, we learned about it in science but I don’t remember it all. I just know that I don’t feel right about it and I am afraid to get around it. I know it is making people in my town sick and I am afraid that something is going to happen to somebody that I love.”
*Rose shows the inhaler that she counts on to be able to breathe. 

*(her name has been changed to protect her identity)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Community Organizing

I cannot express enough how important community organization is to a community such as Bokoshe. Once the folks were informed what exactly they were dealing with everything changed for them. The first part of the organization came with the creation of the group Two is Too Many by the Center for Energy Matters.  They held a series of informational meetings in the area to let the folks know what they were up against with the proposal of an expansion of the power plant. This expansion would have more than doubled the capacity of the existing plant. Many people were involved including Earl Hatley, a master organizer who has worked on several Superfund sites and  every major environmental project in the area from Tar Creek to Black Fox. The media was a big part of this as well, including some very powerful pieces from the Tulsa World by Susan Hylton as well as strong support from my publisher with The Current. I really hesitate to mention any names, lest I leave some out because there were so very many people involved in the fight. What really matters is at the end the people were informed and they did not want any more power plants dumping fly ash in their hometown. Once the people knew what they were dealing with they organized themselves and formed their own group BECAUSE and built a website intheairwebreathe.com/. These people who just a few years ago were living their own lives have now become activists. They travel regularly to DEQ Air Quality meetings, are headed to Dallas to speak before the EPA and even go as far as Washington D.C. to lobby. This has been an amazing transformation for the community and I don't think they will ever back down until they get what they want.
Earl Hatley (speaking) Robert Huston (seated)
in Poteau, Ok.

2009 DEQ Air Quality Meeting

Saturday, September 4, 2010

So safe.

When I first came to Bokoshe and started to meet the locals I was startled to realize that these folks had been told that fly ash was much like crushed limestone and  used to manufacture make-up.

Tim Tanksley, a lifetime Bokoske resident says: "When they had the first meetings about this stuff, they told us it was just dirt, you could put it on your peanut butter and jelly sandwich and it wouldn't hurt you, so nobody thought too much about it."

I don't know about you, but there is no way I'm eating anything that has Mercury, Lead, and Arsenic in it.

Shady Point Fly Ash

Shady Point is a "merchant plant" which means that it produces electricity not just for the area that it is serves, but for other locations as well. Shady Point sells electricity to Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and Louisiana. 90% of the coal comes by train from Wyoming and 10% is Oklahoma coal that is trucked in.. In effect other cities get all the benefits of "clean" electricity while the small town of Bokoshe is left to suffocate in the dust.

Dump sites such as this one are often littered with beer and soda cans.
 The Oklahoma coal burned at Shady Point is of high sulfur content and is of poor quality in general. The residues left over are extremely dirty. The Bokoshe area is littered with several unlined dumpsites, many of them unmarked. Several such as this one offer unlimited access with little or no fencing. Open gates with broken locks are common. Children are able to come on to the properties to hunt and explore, teens are known to use these places as parking spots for weekend parties. Fly ash is dangerous, many of it's components are individually deemed hazardous, yet when all the components come together as fly ash it is no longer regulated.

The dangers of fly ash go way beyond the big names of heavy metals that are in the ash such as Mercury, Lead and Arsenic. Many people may not know that fly ash is often radioactive as well. A 2007 article in the Scientific American states "In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. "
You can read the entire article here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste

Friday, September 3, 2010

Oxygen in use.

The first time I went to Bokoshe was when The Center for Energy Matters had been holding public meetings to help organize the community to help stop the AES Shady Point Two power plant. When I found out that the power plant had an offsite surface impoundment I decided to go see what one looked like. On my way to the site, I noticed that several of the houses had these signs in their windows and doors. Thinking back to my neighborhood and any other that I had ever been in, I knew that the number of signs that I was seeing in Bokoshe was unusually high.

I pulled over to the house that had this particular sign in their door and  introduced myself as a journalist and asked why so many people had these signs displayed at their homes. The woman who answered the door early that Saturday morning was Lisa Tackett, the moment I finished talking she grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me in the house. She said "You need to talk to my husband"

I spoke to the family for just a few minutes and thought that their story was so incredible, I asked if I could go outside and get my camera to tape their story and a project was born. You can watch the video here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1e1JGmgnr-k

Clean Water: A Basic Human Right.

Many people in the area make their living raising cattle. These cattle often drink water that has run off from the dump site and from  nearby groundwater wells. The possibility of  contamination is too great to ignore.  As you can see from this photo there is little doubt that these cattle come in contact with runoff from the site. A recent report issues by Earth Justice states "U.S. coal-fired power plants generate nearly 140 million tons of fly ash, scrubber sludge, and other combustion wastes every year.   The EPA has indicated that coal ash dumps significantly increase risks to both people and wildlife.  For example, EPA's 2007 risk assessment estimated that up to one in 50 residents living near certain wet ash ponds could get cancer due to arsenic contamination of drinking water".

Making Money Having Fun!

Just about two miles from a population of 450 is where the dump site is located. The dump is unlined and many people who live nearby depend on wells for their water. Despite violations issued in 2009 by the DEQ Air Quality Division and EPA Water Quality Division, the dump is still in operation. The dump site is operated by Making Money Having Fun LLC , and despite being found in violation of both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act for 7 years, M.M.H.F. was accessed no monetary penalties.

Shady Point Power Plant

The Shady Point power plant is located 7 miles from Bokoshe in Panama, Oklahoma. It is a 350 mega-watt plant consisting of two 175 MW engines that went into service On February 17, 2009. The plant claims to use "Clean Coal" technology although they are listed as one of Oklahoma's dirtiest polluters by scorecard.org.
 Recently AES Shady Point applied for permits to build an additional 650 MW and were met with great opposition from local citizens. AES later announced that it had withdrawn its air permit application for the new plant. Company spokesman Lundy Kiger explained the decision to cancel the project as "part of our broader strategy to re-evaluate our growth plans".

A Throwaway Community

Low-income communities shoulder a disproportionate share of the health risks from disposal of coal combustion waste.  A majority of communities in the U.S. where a dump site is located are above the national median for percent of low-income families. Similar high poverty rates are found in 118 of the 120 coal-producing counties, where coal combustion wastes increasingly are being disposed in unlined, under-regulated mines, often in direct contact with groundwater. 


Welcome to Bokoshe

Welcome to Bokoshe (pop 450).

Bokoshe is the home of an offsite surface impoundment for the Shady Point power plant in Panama, Oklahoma.  80 trucks a day make a 7 mile trek from the power plant to an unlined dumpsite less than two miles from the heart of Bokoshe. The trucks contain fly ash, otherwise known as coal combustion waste, which is known to contain arsenicberylliumboroncadmiumchromiumchromium VIcobaltleadmanganese,mercurymolybdenumseleniumstrontiumthallium, and vanadium, along with dioxins and PAH compounds.

The dump site is operated by M.M.H.F. LLC. otherwise known as Making Money Having Fun.