By Angelique Giraud
Steve Johnson and his family live on 30 beautiful acres of Florida's Blackwater Creek, in Middleburg, a preserved wetland in northeast Florida connected to St. John's River. It is a quiet rural residential area and appears to be perfect for raising his family and newborn daughter while running his lawn care business. Steve's property is well maintained, he takes pride in the natural aesthetics of his land. For many years, Steve even kept free range chickens for fresh eggs. However, his picture perfect lifestyle is not as it seems. Steve has been fighting for three years to have the toxic containing coal ash, a byproduct from a coal fired power plant, removed from his land.
Steve's story is not unique. Steve was provided with approximately 1500 dump trucks each with 20 yard loads of a coal ash, commercially called EZBase, to build up his roads. The coal ash was taken from the Northside Generating Station, owned by Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA), which is over 40 miles from his home. JEA did not advise Steve that using the product might cause dangerous repercussions, so he applied it thoroughly across his property. Soon after, the horrors began. Steve was visited by an enforcement officer from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). The officer was investigating the application and placement of EZBase. FDEP instructed Steve to remove the product as it was too close to wetlands and water bodies, risking toxic contamination. Steve was also told that the material he applied on the roads should not be inhaled or ingested, and was warned that he should pen up his chickens and keep his daughter away from playing on the newly paved roads.
According to JEA's own marketing materials, EZBase is an electric generation byproduct made of coal combustion waste or coal ash. The federal government does not consider coal ash hazardous waste, but allows states to individually determine how to regulate its use. The FDEP classifies coal ash as a non-hazardous "special waste." This designation leaves little public health protection, even though the product contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, mercury, and many others.
Alarmed and frustrated about being misled, Steve hired a lawyer to sue JEA to force them to remove EZBase from his entire property. JEA refused to remove EZBase completely, claiming Steve improperly applied the product, placing it too close to protected wetlands and other sources of open water.
Steve was taken aback at this accusation, as he had specifically discussed appropriate application sites with a JEA representative before EZBase was unloaded on to his property. JEA provided a pamphlet describing the product, which was nothing like what was delivered. Rather than a dry sandy mixture, it was a slurry concoction of coal ash and boulder sized pieces of bottom ash. JEA claims that Steve's problems were his own fault due to his misapplication. The reality is that the precautions and uses described in the brochure seemed to be for a completely different and benign product.
Due to the concerns raised by FDEP, Steve independently contracted a respected chemical testing firm to analyze the soils on his property. The firm reported high concentrations of metals. In fact, according to the soil cleanup target level for remedied brownfields recommended by the Department of State, arsenic concentrations were 4 times higher and Vanadium tested to be 74 times higher, and when compared to the median level of metals in soils across Florida arsenic was tested to be 45 times higher than the median level in soils, and chromium was 12 times higher than the median level in Florida soils. If the raw facts of toxics present were not enough to prove the dangers of this product, Steve also noted that his once healthy farm fresh eggs began turning gray and blotchy. When this point was later brought up in court, Steve was told that these blemishes are normal for chicken eggs, although he had never seen anything like it in all his years of farming. The evidence provided by the test results and firsthand experience clearly confirmed that extensive pollution existed on Steve's property. But there was one remaining point of contention: was EZBase the cause?
It is now three years later, and JEA will not take full responsibility for the damage done to Steve's property. While JEA has removed coal ash from Steve's boat ramp where it was directly on the water of a preserved wetland, they would not pay for full removal beyond what was required by FDEP.
Three months after discovering that his once pristine property is now polluted, Steve and his family relocated to Alaska for a year to protect their health. They were forced to get rid of their chickens, sell their farming and landscaping equipment, move from their home, and now are facing the threat of losing their property altogether. Although JEA offered Steve a release to remove EZBase for him, he could not agree to turn a blind eye on the fact that toxics had contaminated his land and could jeopardize the health of his family and others. Having lived through this terrible ordeal firsthand, Steve understands the critical importance of ensuring that the public is made aware of the dangers of coal ash products in their community. The health of his baby daughter - and all of the children put at risk by the use of this toxic substance - will never be worth settling.
The double standard is infuriating. While Steve was told by FDEP to remove EZBase from his property at his own expense, JEA was given a mere slap on the wrist for knowingly polluting preserved habitats. Even worse, JEA was also given a big pat on the back, and wallet, for recycling this same product.
Steve Johnson is not alone. Coal burning power plants produce more than 130 million tons of coal ash each year. In Florida alone, over 4.1million tons were produced in 2010 with at least half a million tons coming from JEA. Nationally, half of this waste is recycled for "beneficial uses" with applications such as EZBase, cement, and filling in old mines, which poses serious risk for explosion and leaching of toxics into surrounding water supplies.
Very little research has been done on the safety of the reuse of coal ash. Currently, the federal government has delegated to the states the authority to decide how coal ash should be handled. As far as Steve Johnson, his neighbors, and the untold thousands of people in communities across Florida and the country are concerned, coal ash is a national problem of environmental injustice, and should be regulated by EPA as a hazardous waste. Tens of thousands of Floridians live near old coal plants and the unsuspecting public has a right to know what toxics are in their neighborhoods, threatening the safety of their families and water supply.
Now is the time to take action for people like Steve Johnson and for the safety of your own family. The first step toward ensuring the safety of your community is to write to your Florida U.S. Senators today. Tell Senator Nelson and Senator Rubio to put the health and safety of your family ahead of the profits of private industry. As your elected officials, it is their job to protect your health and the environment. Pass along Steve's story and if you have one of your own, send it to email@example.com.