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

EPA proposed declaring coal ash hazardous, considering more lenient standards.

March 28, 2011, 6:26 AM

March 29, 2011 — -- Many residents of Bokoshe, Okla., have a common fear: a coal ash dump site.

"It's real distressing to have something like this in your backyard and not be sure if you're safe, if your kids are safe," Dub Tolbert said.

The mound of coal ash at the MMHF -- Making Money Having Fun -- dump site reaches six stories high; residents count 80 truckloads a day. The dump site has been in the town since 2001.

Residents say the toxic mix -- coal ash contains arsenic, mercury and lead -- contaminates the air they breathe and water they drink.

"It would be a cloud of dust that would engulf you," said Susan Holmes. "It would just choke you so you couldn't breathe."

Of the 20 homes in the immediate neighborhood, 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.

A link between exposure and specific diseases is difficult to prove but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that dumps that do not have protective liners present a high risk of human exposure to arsenic and other hazardous contaminants. Bokoshe's dump does not have a protective liner.

According to the EPA, if contaminants from coal ash sites get into drinking water, the cancer risk can increase from 20 to 2,000 times the EPA's targets.

In 2009 and 2010, the agency tested the water being discharged at the Bokoshe dump and found it to be toxic. MMHF was ordered to stop polluting the water but the EPA says the company has not complied. The case has now been referred to the Department of Justice.

Dumping Site: What Do We Need to Do?

"If the government comes on this operation and says [the ash] is a toxic waste, OK, what do we need to do?" said Daryl Jackson, owner of the MMHF dump site. He said the company would comply with any new government rules.

AES, which owns the plant that churns out the ash, said that it was following all government regulations.

Michael Brune of the Sierra Club said coal ash is a hazardous material.

"It's toxic. It's deadly. [And] right now it is regulated like household garbage," he said.

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."

For now, residents are wondering what's going to happen to their town. "We'll be covered in ash," said Evelyn Davies.

"There will more people dying. More younger people dying," Holbert said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events