BOKOSHE — The three men in their 60s sit in Sassy’s Place — the only cafe in this small eastern Oklahoma town of 463 people — ticking off the names of neighbors and matching illnesses as if reading off a grocery list.
And while all three of the longtime Bokoshe-area residents stop short of blaming the coal ash disposal pit just south of town for all their neighbors’ illnesses, they do see a link.
"It’s hard to place blame on it for causing everything,” said Bob Puhrman, 67.
"We’re old,” conceded Puhrman while sitting and talking with friends Tim Tanksley, 66, and James Tackett, 62. "But it’s got to be something when you see ash piling up everywhere. Did this cause it? Well, it sure the hell didn’t help it.”
The owners of Making Money Having Fun, the operator of the fly ash pit at the Thumbs Up Ranch, say their operation has nothing to do with health problems in the area.
"None of that is proven,” company owner Daryl Jackson said. "We’ve been in this business for dang near 20 years and all of us are not exactly joggers but all of us are healthy. My secretaries are the same. My brothers. My oldest son, he actually runs the dump site.”
Tanksley, Tackett and Puhrman cite their list of names as proof something is going on.
There’s the man just down the street with a brain tumor. There’s Puhrman’s wife, who died of pneumonia on St. Patrick’s Day 2008. There’s the woman just down the road from Dub’s house who is battling cancer.
And there’s Tackett with his paralyzed left lung and need for four breathing treatments a day. Tackett, who has lived in Bokoshe his whole life, spent most of the last four years living with his mother until she died from cancer.
"Out there in that neighborhood where she lived, there’s about nine to 10 cases of cancer,” he said.
Debate rages about the safety of fly ash, a by-product of coal combustion. In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency determined fly ash was not a hazardous material, but that decision is being reconsidered.
Fly ash can be used in the reclamation of old coal mines, said Scott Thompson, Land Protection Division director at the state Department of Environmental Quality.
"There are a lot of holes there (in southeastern Oklahoma) that it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to fill in,” he said. "I don’t see how we’re ever going to be able to buy material to fill in old mines if this kind of material is not available.”
A reclamation project
Making Money Having Fun takes in fly ash from the AES Shady Point coal-fired power plant in eastern Oklahoma. It’s about a 15-mile drive from the power plant to the disposal site.
Making Money Having Fun began accepting the fly ash at the Thumbs Up Ranch about seven years ago. The site is an old coal strip mine and has a permit from the Oklahoma Department of Mines to operate as a reclamation project and use the fly ash to fill in the mine.
Bokoshe residents question how it can be a reclamation project when the ash has been built up about 50 feet above ground.
From the yard of Herman "Dub” Tolbert, 66, a third-generation owner of 400 acres that sits in the shadow of the fly ash pit, the disposal site looks like concrete forming the bottom rows of a pyramid.
"We just feel like we’ve been dumped on down here and nobody cares about it,” Tolbert said.
While the Department of Environmental Quality doesn’t have any official comment on the Bokoshe site, Thompson said it’s hard to see how the land is being reclaimed.