Administration turns down senator’s request to make public the list of 44 dumps, which contain arsenic and metals
A rift has opened between the Obama administration and some of its closest allies – Democratic leaders and environmental organisations – over its refusal to publicly disclose the location of 44 coal ash dumps that have been officially designated as a “high hazard” to local populations.
The administration turned down a request from a powerful Democratic senator to make public the list of 44 dumps, which contain a toxic soup of arsenic and heavy metals from coal-fired electricity plants, citing terrorism fears.
The refusal has put the Obama administration at odds with some of its strongest supporters over an emerging area of environmental concern in America.
Last Christmas, a retaining wall burst on a coal ash pond in Tennessee disgorging a billion gallons of waste and putting pressure on the authorities to bring in safety controls over the management of some 600 similar waste pools dotted across the country.
Some 44 of the most dangerous coal ash dumps are known to be located in populated areas in 26 separate locations. The high hazard designation means that a breach, like the one in Tennessee, could cause death and significant property damage if the sludge spills into surrounding neigbourhoods. But that is all the adminstration will disclose.
“Right now we have a blanket gag order,” Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who heads the Senate environment and public works committee told a press conference last week.
“We are losing what we cherish in America: the citizens’ right to know.”
Boxer, who has seen the list of sites, said she was only allowed to share the information with fellow senators – not their staff and not local authorities in the affected areas.
“There is a huge muzzle on me and my staff,” she said. “They’re putting ridiculous restrictions on me.”
The local newspaper in Tennessee also ridiculed the decision.
“These waste sites may be environmental and health hazards. But they are unlikely terror targets,” said the Knox group of newspapers. “As the muckety-mucks in Washington know, the real danger of disclosure is from angry Americans. If citizens realise they are downstream from fragile mountains of gunk, they will demand action and accountability.”
Environmental groups see the gag order on the coal ash sites as a betrayal of Obama’s promise, during his speech to staff on his first day in the White House in January, of a new era of openness in government.
“For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” Obama said in the speech. “That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.”
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