Ashes to Ashes

by Gene Perry

Just outside Bokoshe, Oklahoma is a winding stretch of properties known as “the loop.” The land is heavily wooded and sparsely populated—a place where you’d likelier see a bull snake crossing the road than a person. It’s hardly anyone’s idea of a center of pollution and disease.

But as Tim Tanksley drove the loop, he pointed left and right and left again, indicating nearly every home we passed.

“Someone there has cancer,” he said.

At the next house, “There’s cancer in that one.”

And the house after that, “A woman there is on oxygen.”

A grandfather with a trimmed gray mustache, cowboy hat, patient demeanor, and heavy Oklahoma drawl, Tanksley is not the typical image of an activist or environmentalist. But he and other residents of Bokoshe have spent years battling a coal ash dump near their town. They believe the ash is causing serious health problems in the 450-person community.

The ash comes on trucks out of the AES Shady Point coal plant, seven miles east of Bokoshe. AES Shady Point stands out against the green of rural Le Flore County—a pale, sprawling complex with one long smokestack pointing at the sky. If you live in central Oklahoma, Shady Point’s electricity likely lights your home. You might have sipped on carbon dioxide that was scrubbed out of its smokestack to make its way into your soft drink. You’ve also paid with your tax dollars to keep it burning Oklahoma coal.

And for the Oklahomans living nearby—in small towns with memorable names like Spiro, Panama, and Bokoshe—the impact is impossible to miss.

Not everyone in Bokoshe and nearby communities is convinced that the coal ash is dangerous. They defend the economic benefits of the plant, from those directly employed by AES to retailers who get regular business from the ash truck drivers.

The dumpsite near Bokoshe is owned by the five Jackson brothers: Ken, Kevin, Chad, Daryl, and Mark. They run a company formerly known as Making Money, Having Fun, LLC. After getting negative publicity, they changed the name to Clean Hydro Reclamation.

“We are a hardworking family,” Chad Jackson told a local newspaper. “We go to work every day, try to make an honest living and have some fun at it. That’s why the company was formerly named MMHF.”

One of the Jackson brothers lives in a house adjacent to the dump site, where he is exposed to the ash as much as anyone. But according to a count by Bokoshe residents, 14 out of the 20 households near the site have someone with cancer or severe respiratory problems. Bokoshe elementary school teacher Diane Reece said 9 out of 17 students in her sixth grade science class have asthma. That compares to about 1 out of 10 children with asthma nationwide. The school is 1.5 miles from the coal ash pit. Reece was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2002 and breast cancer in 2007.

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Kenneth Self is a former coal ash worker who knows the dangers first hand. Today he lives near Panama, Oklahoma, in a trailer home that as we talked in the yard was exited by more people and dogs than it seemed could comfortably fit inside.

He rolled up a sleeve to reveal an arm speckled with white. The spots are remnants of alkali burns, from when coal ash reacted with his sweat to form a blister.

“It gets hot anytime it contacts moisture,” he said.

Alkali burns are a common ailment for people who work with wet concrete, to which coal ash is commonly added. The ash is under our feet everywhere in streets and sidewalks. Locked away in pavement, it is unlikely to pose a health threat, but before it gets there is another matter.

In the early 1990s, Self worked at a coal ash dumpsite operated by the P&K Coal Company. P&K was one of numerous small companies with brief lives that have overseen coal ash disposal over the years. AES Shady Point may be their only customer, but the liability is one step removed.

Self operated a bulldozer at the P&K site, tamping down mounds of ash after they were dumped from trucks. Self said he and the other workers were “young, dumb, and making good money with Cash Crates.” He didn’t think about the dangers of inhaling the ash.

“Like my daddy said, they can kill you, son, but they can’t eat you,” he said.

After 2 and a half years on the job, he began to have trouble breathing. One day he woke up hyperventilating. He rushed to the hospital, where doctors found a mass in his lungs that they at first thought was cancer. It turned out to be a clump of coal ash.

Eventually he was diagnosed with “small airway disease due to chemical accumulation.” After a year of legal battles, Self settled out of court with P&K for $7,624.50. After attorney fees and other expenses, he received a little over $5,000.

Self said he still experiences breathing problems that make it hard for him to work, and today he lives on full disability.

The pit where Self worked is no longer in use. A sign warns visitors, “Private Property: Keep Out,” but the gate sits torn off its hinges and buried in weeds. Past the gate and up a small hill is the coal ash mound. A couple days after heavy rains, it looks like black mud but quickly turns to a gray powder as it dries on the skin. The mound is crisscrossed with tire tracks from local kids’ dirt bikes and 4-wheelers. Back at AES Shady Point, 3,000 tons of coal arrive every day by train. The coal is sent to one of four boilers where it’s floated on jets of air as it burns in a bubbling mixture of gas and solids. The smokestack sends up no visible emissions because filter bags catch most of the particulate matter. But the particles have to go somewhere, so they end up in the ash. Then the ash is sent to Bokoshe at a rate of about 80 truckloads per day.

This year Shady Point celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Members of the media, politicians, and current and former employees gathered to praise the plant. They spoke of its contributions to the area, like building a new elementary school in Panama and funding patrol cars for the Le Flore County Sheriff’s Office.

Others are more skeptical.

“AES Shady Point should have never been built,” said Harlan Hentges, an Oklahoma lawyer and director of the Center for Energy Matters. “And it was only built because of government interference.”

The plant is a subsidiary of the multi-billion dollar AES Corporation, which goes by the slogan, “the power of being global.” But the history of Shady Point, why it was built and whom it touches, is an Oklahoma story.

When the plant began operating, the peak of Oklahoma coal production was a decade gone. In 1981, 5.7 million tons of coal were taken from Oklahoma mines. Ten years later, production had dropped more than two-thirds.

Some Oklahoma lawmakers took it upon themselves to revive the industry. The legendary Gene Stipe (the longest serving member of the legislature until he resigned amid a campaign finance scandal in 2003) traveled to Virginia to lobby AES corporate leaders to build a plant especially designed for Oklahoma coal.

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The effort was successful, and AES Shady Point opened in 1990. Demand for Oklahoma coal had fallen away partly because it is high in sulfur, which is restricted by the Clean Air Act, but Shady Point came with the latest technology for reducing sulfur-dioxide emissions. It was also the first U.S. coal-fired plant to extract from its emissions food-grade carbon dioxide, which is then used for dry ice, flash-freezing chicken, and carbonated drinks.

In its first years, the plant used 100 percent Oklahoma coal. In some years, it has used 65 percent of all the coal produced in Oklahoma.

But sulfur was not the only problem for the industry. Coal is nearer to the surface and much cheaper to mine in Wyoming. After transportation improved and the prices diverged, AES began preparing to move away from Oklahoma coal.

The legislature again stepped in, passing a mandate that all utilities in the state use at least 10 percent Oklahoma coal. This was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992, after Wyoming sued. So in 1993, they created a tax credit. AES Shady Point would get $2 for every ton of Oklahoma coal that it buys. In 1997, the credit was increased to $5 per ton.

The coal credit was also made transferable. That means AES can sell it to any Oklahoma business or individual, who can then deduct the full amount from their own taxes. AES receives more in credits than they owe in taxes, so they sell the surplus for a profit. That’s how most of the coal credit ends up going to insurance companies. In 2009, it paid out about $6 million.

AES spokesman Lundy Kiger said the transferability is needed to keep Shady Point buying Oklahoma coal and supporting Oklahoma mines. Their contract with the mining company, Georges Colliers Inc., is void if the credits expire.

Kiger argues that the credit has paid for itself and created 1,500 to 2,000 direct and indirect jobs in the area.“We’re talking about coal miners, their families, and others,” Kiger said.

AES Shady Point employs about 90 people, with a payroll of $15 million. The plant sells enough electricity to Oklahoma Gas & Electric to power 230,000 homes and businesses. Coal mines directly employ about 180 workers statewide, down from more than 400 in the early 1990s.

The jobs are certainly needed. In 1991, Le Flore County saw almost 14 percent unemployment. The unemployment rate gradually fell through the ’90s, and by 2000 it was as low as 4 percent, though in the current recession it has gone back up to nearly 10 percent.

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Today, AES Shady Point uses about 40 percent Oklahoma coal. Kiger said they would prefer to use all Oklahoma coal, but a Chinese company called Dragon Energy bought exclusive rights to the coal from one of their suppliers. Dragon Energy took over a coal seam that stretches across the Oklahoma-Arkansas border to make a substance called coke, formed by burning coal in an airless furnace at temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees Celsius to drive out almost everything but the carbon. Although China has plenty of its own coal, a building boom created enormous demand for coke, which is used to make steel. Between 2009 and 2010, American coal exports to China increased more than tenfold.

Oklahoma’s coal credit was suspended along with several others in 2010 due to state budget shortfalls. However, it is scheduled to go back into effect on July 1, 2012, and will continue through 2014. Kiger said AES advocates extending the credit beyond that year.

The extension to 2014 aroused some controversy. Representative David Dank, chair of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee, wrote in an Oklahoman op-ed piece that lawmakers “extended a multimillion-dollar coal industry tax credit through 2014, despite a total lack of evidence that the coal industry needed or deserved such special treatment. [It was] passed by both houses of the Legislature in the final 30 minutes of the session, with no House debate, questions or discussion allowed.”

As Kiger describes it, he approached legislative leaders and the governor with a proposal that AES would pay the mining company the equivalent of the credit to keep them in business over the two years suspension if it was extended another two years after that.

“We’ll do this, if you’ll do this,” he said.

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The mound of coal ash outside Bokoshe keeps growing. It was originally proposed as a reclamation project for an abandoned strip mine, but the ash filled the mine years ago. Today it rises more than fifty feet high across an area larger than 15 football fields. When the wind picks up, residents say they’ve watched clouds of ash entering the air.

For some Bokoshe residents, the coal ash is a constant specter. After spending years in the shadow of the coal ash pit and what they believe it is doing to their health, they begin to see ash everywhere—in attics, air conditioner filters, even the dust on top of ceiling fan blades. Some of their concerns may be more justifiable than others, but their experience with AES, state regulators, and politicians have done little to assuage the fears.

Kiger said that to ease concerns from Bokoshe citizens, AES bought new trucks began sending them through a wash station before they leave the plant. However, AES still denies that coal ash poses any health threat.

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After years of no action from state agencies, last year the EPA cited Clean Hydro Reclamation for dumping oil and gas wastewater into a nearby creek, a violation of the Clean Water Act. The EPA has referred the case to the Department of Justice.Even if the water pollution ends, coal ash dumping would likely be allowed to continue. There are currently no federal regulations for coal ash, and state over- sight falls under three different agencies: the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the Department of Mines, and the Department of Environmental Quality. On paper, it is DEQ’s responsibility to monitor air quality at the site, the Corpora- tion Commission’s responsibility to regulate water quality, and the Department of Mines’ job to monitor the coal ash itself. Until the EPA stepped in, none of these agencies had identified any problems with the dumping.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to consider classifying coal ash as a hazardous waste in 2008, after a ruptured dike spilled 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry into tributaries of the Tennessee River. The ash contains trace amounts of mercury, lead, arsenic and other dangerous heavy metals.

In a series of hearings on proposed regulations, the agency received more than 450,000 public comments. They are currently reviewing those comments, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said she doesn’t expect any new rules to be ready this year. Congressional Republicans have repeatedly proposed bills that would prohibit the EPA from taking any action regarding coal ash.

At EPA hearings in Dallas last September, Tanksley spoke about the land his family has lived on since before statehood.

“[Our home] is a legacy that’s been passed down to me through my family gen- erations, and it’s a legacy that I would like to pass on to my children and grandchildren,” he said. “But I’m afraid it will not happen. If they continue to dump the ash around Bokoshe, it’s not going to be a safe place for them to live.”

Research for the article was provided in part by Oklahoma Policy Institute.