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In Bokoshe, ash stirs health debate

BY MICHAEL BAKER Published: May 2, 2010

"I’m going to talk from my personal opinion at this point,” he said. "What’s going on at Bokoshe is not reclamation; it’s disposal.”

A battle has taken place for more than a year between the company and residents in Le Flore County. Tanksley and others have formed the Bokoshe Environmental Cause Group and gone to federal and state regulators to try to get the disposal site closed.

Twice in the past five months, the EPA has ordered Making Money Having Fun to stop discharging contaminated water into waterways. Water is used to dampen the ash. The last order came Tuesday.

After a surprise inspection, the DEQ issued a memo in May 2009 stating the company failed to take reasonable precaution to minimize the fly ash dust. In 2008, the site took in more than 270,000 tons of fly ash, according to the memo.

When it was at its worst, residents said, the wind would blow from the south, and the dust could be suffocating.

"Like a tornado,” Tackett said. "Just like a big cloud of dust coming to blow over you.”

Site owners said they have largely fixed the dust problem and are continuing to work on other problems.

"We’re working with all the government agencies to correct any problems,” Jackson said. "If there’s a problem out there, we’re working with them. We want to protect the environment, too.”

A fight on two fronts
There was a bit of protest when the site began accepting fly ash, but not enough to stop the project.

"Everyone assured us that there’s nothing that can harm you,” Tolbert said. "I guess, you know, it’s our fault. We didn’t research it.”

Tolbert and others stepped up their efforts more than a year ago when AES submitted an application to build a second coal-fired facility that could have meant an expansion of the Making Money Having Fun fly ash pit. AES dropped the plans, but the Bokoshe residents continued their fight.

Tolbert said once residents began to research fly ash, they found it could contain arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, all of which can cause health problems.

Last month, Tanksley was in Washington pushing the EPA to issue the rule designating fly ash as hazardous waste. The rule proposal came after a coal-ash sludge spill in December 2008 in Tennessee damaged more than two dozen homes.

In May 2009, Oklahoma and other states sent letters to the EPA urging caution with such regulations. Oklahoma’s letter, sent by Thompson, said the agency thinks fly ash was adequately managed under existing state law and solid waste regulations.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Tulsa, joined 26 other senators in signing a letter sent in December telling the EPA that classifying coal ash as a hazardous waste could "pull the rug out from under the many U.S. businesses that rely on coal combustion material ... and force unnecessarily high costs on utilities and their customers.”

Bokoshe residents also are fighting the site on the state level.

Last year, Making Money Having Fun accepted wastewater produced from oil and gas wells. When the EPA issued an order in December that the company cease the discharge of contaminated water into a local creek, the state Mines Department ordered the company to stop accepting the oil and gas water.

Now, the state Corporation Commission has asked a judge to look at the permits issued for the site.

Bokoshe residents have successfully petitioned to intervene in the case. They want a judge to rule the Corporation Commission should never have issued a disposal facility permit to Making Money Having Fun because it’s too close to Bokoshe. The case is pending.

About fly ash
Fly ash is a byproduct generated from burning coal in coal-fired power plants. It is a very fine, powdery material, with a consistency somewhat like talcum powder. Fly ash can contain heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and selenium and can cause cancer, birth defects, respiratory problems and other illnesses. About 45 percent of the 70 million tons of fly ash produced in the U.S. last year was recycled, primarily in concrete to enhance its strength and resistance to the elements. Fly ash applications include its use as a:

• Raw material in concrete products and grout

• Feed stock in the production of cement

• Fill material for structural applications and embankments

• Ingredient in waste stabilization and/or solidification

• Ingredient in soil modification and/or stabilization

• Component in road bases, sub-bases, and pavement

• Mineral filler in asphalt.

Sources: Environmental Protection Agency, American Coal Ash Association, National Resources Defense Council


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