Oklahoma Town Fears Cancer, Asthma May Be Linked to Dump Site

VIDEO: Waste Dump Causes Oklahoma Town to Worry About Health
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Residents are still fighting the dumping of coal ash in the tiny Oklahoma town of Bokoshe, but the coal company producing the ash is already dumping in a second town a few miles down the road.

We reported for World News with Diane Sawyer last week on the town of Bokoshe, Oklahoma, which has fought for years to stop the dumping of coal ash near their homes. Residents fear the ash is to blame for cancers and other diseases including asthma. Linking exposure to specific diseases is difficult to prove. But the EPA has concluded that dumps that do not have protective liners – and Bokoshe's does not – present a high risk of human exposure to arsenic and other hazardous contaminants. And if the contaminants get into drinking water, the ash can increase the cancer risk 20 to 2000 times the EPA's targets.

VIDEO: Waste Dump Causes Oklahoma Town to Worry About Health
Small Town Fears Health May be Threatened by Waste Dump

AES, which generates the ash at a nearby coal-fired power plant, has hired Mining Systems Corporation to dump ash at the unlined Milton Pit, 12 miles west of Bokoshe, near McCurtain, Oklahoma. People who live near the Milton Pit have asked Bokoshe residents for help.

George Bowden lives next door to the Milton Pit. "I'm not at all satisfied. We just don't want coal ash here," he said.

"The people of Bokoshe have two objectives. First, that the Bokoshe dump stops operating. Second that fly ash not be dumped on someone else," said Harlan Hentges, a lawyer working with the Bokoshe families. "But AES is already dumping on somebody new."

According to the Oklahoma Department of Mines, the new site was originally a strip coal mine. Its permit was revised to allow ash dumping.

ODM's Brett Sholar told me, "AES wants to have alternatives where they can put the ash. Our view is that this is mine reclamation. It's been a good program for us."

Bowden says he and his wife have seen violations on multiple days, including not using water and dumping out of rear loaders as opposed to belly loaders as required by the permit.

"The dust was everywhere. They didn't have any water. They were dumping from end dumps – all in violation of their permit."

Residents tell a different story. They say they witnessed ash dump trucks violating the requirements of the company's permit, including spraying water to reduce clouds of coal dust. Sholar told ABC News his company had not violated any rules and no violations were ever issued.

"Once again, the people on whom the fly ash is being dumped are being misled," said Hentges. "First they are told they will be protected by the strict permit. Then, when they complain they are told the company is doing everything required by the permit. Then when they prove the permit is being violated, they are told there is nothing the agency can do," Hentges said, adding, "It reminds me of Bart Simpson, 'I didn't do it, nobody saw me, you can't prove anything.'"

Of the 20 homes in the immediate neighborhood of the Bokoshe dump, 14 have one or more cancer victims, residents told ABC News.

"She has cancer there," said Tolbert as he drove by houses. "He has cancer there. She passed away from cancer."

Shirley Holbert has incurable lymphoma. "For me, it's too late. But my children and grandchildren, I want them to be healthy and not have to breathe what I've been breathing," she said.

In the Bokoshe public school, teachers told ABC News that more than half of students had asthma.

"It's scary because you, you think you might, like, start coughing or something and that you could possibly die," said 12-year-old Shelby.

In 2009, the EPA proposed declaring coal ash a hazardous waste, which would have forced companies to put in liners, monitor water and phase out older dumps.

Since then, under pressure from industry and other government agencies, the EPA has proposed more lenient standards that would not be enforceable by the federal government, leaving states and communities to sue to force companies to comply.

The agency told ABC News new regulations would "protect human health and the environment ... in a cost-effective way."

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