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Coping with Coal Ash's Health Effects

This is the latest in our series of community coal ash profiles. This piece was written by Sierra Club Apprentice Lydia Avila.

The community of Joliet, Illinois, identifies as many things - Midwestern, humble, and hard-working. Yet they also identify with something much less positive: being collateral damage. According to Joliet residents, they don't even merit a second thought to Midwest Generation, a coal-fired power plant that has been dumping toxic coal ash near Joliet for over 40 years.

Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal for electricity, and it's having a major impact on Joliet. Residents say if you were to spend a week in Joliet you would find yourself driving through coal ash fog; a stroll in your yard would cause you to come back covered in "black stuff" and/or yellow particulates; you wouldn't be able to drink or bathe in the water; and your clothes would come out of the washer tinted orange and black from the chemicals in the water. 

If you spent time in Joliet, residents say, you would see this "black stuff" covering your car, yard and house on a daily basis, and you certainly could not fish in any of the lakes, rivers or streams in the area.

But, they added, even worse are the health effects that you and your loved ones would experience: nose bleeds, blisters, skin infections, migraines, coughing, gagging, mercury poisoning, neurological disorders, to name a few. And, these would culminate in the form of asthma, kidney transplants, heart transplants, lymphoma, neurological disorders, seizures, rare forms of leukemia, emergency hysterectomies, and lupus (again, just to name a few).

Tammy Thompson knows the health effects first-hand - calling herself and her family part of that collateral damage. Her six-year-old daughter Faith has suffered the effects of living near a coal plant since she was born. Faith’s doctor diagnosed her with Grave's Disease and recommended that she, and all the children in Joliet, be routinely tested for lead and mercury poisoning.

Thompson recalls times when she often had to struggle to gain composure in her car, while her daughter in the backseat would ask, "What's that smell, mommy?" and then complain of headaches. She saw her daughter suffer from blisters and sores every time they bathed her in a storage tub filled with bottled water following recommendations from her doctor, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and others. Yet, for a long time, their health problems remained a mystery.

Thompson and her neighbors have taken matters into their own hands, filing report after report and making phone call after phone call to local, state and federal agencies. When Thompson discusses the actions taken by the people of Joliet, she underscores the fact that this is a human issue: "I'm not an environmentalist, I'm a mom. I'm not an activist, I'm an American," she said.

Unfortunately, Joliet residents say their concerns have consistently been ignored by every public agency and department that, in theory, is supposed to help them.

The IEPA and local officials play a game of ping pong with their cries for help, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims not to have jurisdiction over the area. The IEPA likes to claim that these diseases occur naturally, but there is nothing natural about the levels at which they occur in Joliet.

On the rare occasions when the IEPA has returned a few a call, agency officials have tried to justify the horrendous living conditions by saying the jobs at the coal plant and its coal ash disposal site are needed.

Thompson says that supposed "gain" certainly pales in comparison to watching her family and friends suffer the health effects. "'Get use to it and get over it' is what they try to tell us," Thompson said.

Not surprisingly, when the Environmental Integrity Project and Sierra Club's recently released coal ash report, "In Harm's Way," Joliet was listed as one of the most contaminated sites in the country. The town of Joliet has received national attention from such figures as Erin Brockovich and, at the time, Senator Obama.

Thompson and her community continue to ask why they aren't receiving any help. "Why doesn't the EPA prove something is safe? Why must we wait for a body count to show it’s not?" asked Thompson.

"It's not an environmental issue; it's an ethical, social and civil rights issue."

Tell EPA we need strong federal safeguards for toxic coal ash.
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