As of last week, the Obama administration is refusing to make public the location of 44 hazardous coal ash storage sites in 26 states that pose a danger to people living nearbyóa move that has put the White House at odds with some of its strongest supporters on Capitol Hill and in the environmental community.
The Obama administration says the coal ash storage sites must remain secret for the sake of national security. Officials claim that secrecy is the only way to avoid making the hazardous waste sites potential targets of terrorist attacks that could spread the dangerous mix of arsenic, heavy metals and other toxins to local communities and water supplies.
The dangers of coal ash waste were brought to public attention in December , when a storage pond at a Tennessee power plant was breached and the poisonous sludge buried a town, contaminated nearby rivers and streams, and created an environmental disaster 100 times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Following that spill, the EPA classified 44 other coal ash storage sites as potential hazards to U.S. communitiesóa designation that means the hazardous waste sites could cause death and serious property damage in the event of a spill.
Yet, the locations of Superfund sites and nuclear power plants are well known and are not treated as national security concerns that require government secrecy and public ignorance. So why this sudden need to protect the American people by keeping us all in the dark about a nationwide collection of hazardous coal ash waste sites that could destroy our homes, damage our health, or even take our lives?
The Knox group of newspapers in Tennessee suggested strongly that the government may be more concerned with protecting itself instead of its citizens: "These waste sites may be environmental and health hazards. But they are unlikely terror targets. As the muckety-mucks in Washington know, the real danger of disclosure is from angry Americans. If citizens realize they are downstream from fragile mountains of gunk, they will demand action and accountability."
Some environmentalists have raised an even more troubling question of environmental justice.
"We know that there are no coal ash sites in Manhattan. So where are these sites?" said Virginia Cramer of the Sierra Club in a statement. "They are generally in low-income and minority communities, so we are concerned about those communities knowing what types of dangers are surrounding them."
All of this runs counter to President Obamaís promise to promote greater openness in government.
"For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city," Obama said in a speech to government staff on his first day as president. "That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known."