Is Coal Ash Killing This Oklahoma Town?

The people of Bokoshe, Okla., breathe coal ash being dumped nearby every day. They believe it's causing widespread health problems and a rise in cancer deaths.

The wind that blows through Bokoshe, Okla. is an ominous one. A small, low-income town near the Arkansas border, Bokoshe sits in the shadow of a coal power plant. Its toxic byproduct, coal ash, is trucked daily to a nearby dump, and when the wind blows through town, that ash rains down on its residents. They believe it is to blame for the asthma and cancer that runs rampant there.

For six years, one photographer has documented the story, and struggles, of the people of Bokoshe. By photographing the same people and places over time, Carlan Tapp illustrates the plague of sickness and death, and also the resiliency of a community that finds itself in the midst of a potential health crisis and without any lifelines.

Tapp's father gave him a camera when he was six, and Tapp hasn't stopped shooting since. Early in his career, he worked for newspapers, before landing a position in the early 1970s as an assistant to Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park. He later spent more than two decades as a studio photographer in Seattle, before a fateful trip to New York City in 2001.

Tapp had traveled there for meetings in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and found himself walking downtown among the chaos of the cleanup. He rode the subway uptown, where he emerged in Central Park and took the sole photo of his trip. There, in the natural world, Tapp says he found "some kind of semblance of order within all this chaos."

When he returned to Seattle, he knew it was time for a change. "I'm done doing this stuff I've been doing," he says he told his wife Nancy. "It's time to get back to my roots." They packed up and moved to New Mexico, and Tapp recentered his career around documenting the relationship between people and the natural world. He now works as a freelance documentary photographer, whose work has appeared in exhibits across the U.S. 

He began tackling the issue of coal with a project documenting how coal impacted the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, which then led him to the aftermath of the 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee. He followed the ash to Uniontown, Ala., the poor, black community where it was dumped. He veered off to cover the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, he learned of a small community in rural Oklahoma with a massive coal ash dump and widespread disease.

At his wife's prodding, Tapp swung through Bokoshe on his way home from a trip to the Gulf in August 2010, and he's been telling its story ever since.

Breathing Hard in Bokoshe

Coal ash piles near Bokoshe, OK

All photographs by Carlan Tapp

The residents of rural Bokoshe, Oklahoma (pop. 497) have been living in the shadow of an uncovered, unlined coal ash dump for more than 20 years. Coal ash contains toxic chemicals like arsenic, mercury, lead and chromium that can seep into water and sediment, and blow from the ash piles into the air. According to Earthjustice, 70 percent of all coal ash dumps in the U.S. are located in low-income communities. Bokoshe fits that trend: Forty percent of its residents, mostly white, live below the poverty line, and fewer than a third have health insurance.

Sue Hudson holds photo of her daughter, who died of cancer

No health studies have been conducted in Bokoshe, but residents believe the site is causing cancer rates and premature deaths to skyrocket. In this photo taken on Aug. 31, 2010, Bokoshe resident Sue Hudson holds a picture of her daughter, Charlie, who died in 2004, 17 days after being diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in her lungs, lymph nodes and liver. The family believed her illness was caused by coal ash exposure.

Susan Holmes holds photo of her mother

March 16, 2016. Six years later, Susan Holmes holds a photograph of her mother, Sue Hudson, and her sister, Charlie, who have now both died from cancer in Bokoshe. Sue was diagnosed in 2011 with cancer of the pancreas, liver and respiratory system. Susan, 60, suffers from acute asthma, which developed after she moved to Bokoshe. She requires heavy daily doses of steroids to help her breathe.

The AES Shady Point power plant

Bokoshe’s residents say their health troubles can be traced to 1992, the year the Shady Point coal plant operated by AES went online 6.2 miles from town. The plant generates roughly 550,000 pounds of coal ash a year, according to the Energy Information Administration, the vast majority of which is dumped in open pits near Bokoshe. Though coal ash can be reconstituted as wallboard and other products—a process called "beneficial reuse"—the ash that gets dumped in pits is left there for good.

Making Money Having Fun

Shady Point’s primary waste dump is located about a mile from Bokoshe. The site, and the company that operates it, are called Making Money Having Fun (MMHF). At five stories high and covering about 20 acres, it is the size of 15 football fields and is the largest coal ash disposal site in Oklahoma.

Trucks turn at Sassy's Place in Bokoshe

Each day, about 80 trucks carry coal ash from the AES Shady Point power plant to the waste dump, making the turn at Sassy's Place. It was the only restaurant in town, and it closed earlier this year. Now, downtown Bokoshe consists of two gas stations, an American Legion hall, the elementary school and vacant buildings.

Coal ash blows on a windy day in Bokoshe, OK

On a windy day, the sky above Bokoshe and the surrounding communities fills with toxic clouds of coal ash billowing from the open MMHF pit. The ash is piled at the site—an abandoned coal mine—while it is mixed with water to form slurry. The slurry then dries out, turning the ash back to dust, which then blows through town. According to the company’s permit with the state Department of Mines, the pit is supposed to be temporary, and will ultimately be transformed into a pasture. But the residents report that the pile is only growing higher.

Bokoshe resident with coal ash trucks

Until the EPA passed a federal rule in 2015, coal ash was regulated by the states. Some states left the waste largely unregulated, while others had minimal safeguards. A 2012 report by Earthjustice found that Oklahoma state regulations "fail to require basic disposal safeguards." The state regulations only require groundwater monitoring at some coal ash ponds and landfills, and do not require composite liners at any coal ash ponds and landfills.

Coal ash in Bokoshe, OK

The long-awaited EPA ruling that came in 2015 has not helped Bokoshe. The regulations do not apply to coal ash stored in reclaimed surface mines, like the MMHF pit. These types of pits are under the jurisdiction of the federal Office of Surface Mines and in Oklahoma are regulated by the state Department of Mines. The OSM has long promised to draft a proposal for regulating this type of ash impoundment, according to Earthjustice senior attorney Lisa Evans, but has not yet done so.

Ash blowing from the MMHF site

Absent government regulation, Bokoshe residents have been left to fend for themselves. In April 2009, residents complained to the state Air Quality Council that the ash was blowing from the MMHF site. The next month, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) investigated and found that ash was spewing into the air as trucks were unloaded, and that the dust wasn’t being watered down to keep it from blowing away. It issued five violations under the state’s Clean Air Act. When the ODEQ followed up in October 2009, it said the issues were resolved. The residents say dust is still escaping.

Coal ash in Bokoshe, OK

The MMHF site has been cited for other violations. The EPA issued a cease-and-desist order for discharging water into nearby Buck Creek in 2009. The water was found to be heavily contaminated with salts. The Oklahoma Department of Mines followed with a cease-and-desist order and a notice of violation for bringing oil and gas water on-site. A 2010 EPA investigation found that the site was watering down the coal ash with brine from an oil field, rather than with clean water. Oil field brine can be many times saltier than seawater and can contain contaminants like hydrocarbons, heavy metals and radioactive material. It also learned that the runoff from the coal ash was flowing into a tributary of Doe Creek. The EPA issued a cease-and-desist order requiring MMHF to stop using the brine.

Blowing coal ash in Bokoshe, OK

In fall 2011, a group of Bokoshe residents filed a class action lawsuit against MMHF and AES Corporation, which owns the Shady Point power plant. The suit sought an end to dumping at MMHF and the cleanup of the soil and water. They also wanted the establishment of two funds: one to cover environmental monitoring, and another to cover monitoring of adverse health effects. In April 2016, the case was dismissed by the 10th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Bokoshe teacher Diane Reece

Diane Reece, a long-time elementary teacher in Bokoshe, lived with her husband, Bill, less than a half-mile down the road from the coal ash pit. Every day for more than a decade, she rode her bicycle on coal ash-covered roads to and from school. Her neighbor, who rode with her, died from cancer in 2005.

A student from Diane Reece's class in Bokoshe, OK

The sixth-grade students in Diane Reece's class wrote letters to President Obama in 2010 voicing their concerns about the coal ash. "I've had asthma since I was two. It ain't no fun. When it gets dusty I can't breathe," wrote one of the students.

53% of this sixth grade class has asthma

Nine out of 17 students in the 6th grade class that year had asthma, which, at nearly 53 percent of the class, is five times the national rate for asthma among children between the ages of five and 14, according to the CDC. “I have asthma. You can't do what normal people do. When I play basketball I have to take my inhaler non-stop. It's scary," wrote one child.

Diane Reece of Bokoshe, OK, died in 2013

Diane Reece worked until Thanksgiving 2013, when she learned she had an aggressive type of leukemia. This was her third cancer diagnosis, having survived colon cancer in 2002 and breast cancer in 2007. She died on Dec. 4, 2013. Two weeks later, her family got word that Diane had won the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. After having been nominated and announced as a finalist, Diane had been waiting for the award announcement, but it didn’t come before she died. The 36-year veteran of Bokoshe Elementary School was one of two teachers in the state to be honored that year.

"It's pathetic," resident says of political response to Bokoshe

Bokoshe resident Tim Tanksley holds the local Poteau Daily News from Jan. 29, 2016, featuring an article about Republican Sen. James Inhofe’s visit to the AES Shady Point power plant. He was traveling across Oklahoma to criticize new environmental regulations affecting the coal plant, which he called “overreach." "The president is trying to put coal out of business," Inhofe was quoted as saying. There was no mention of the health issues affecting the residents of Bokoshe in the article. “It’s pathetic,” said Tanksley. “These people do not care. They do not care about us.”

Documenting the coal ash blowing

Tim Tanksley fires up his video camera as he tries to document the blowing toxic coal ash. He called the Oklahoma Department of Environment to report the issue on March 8, 2016. He was told that no one could come to inspect the town that day. When an inspector finally came to Bokoshe, the winds weren’t blowing, according to Tanksley. A letter from the ODEQ on March 22, 2016 stated, "I conducted a re-inspection of March 15, 2016 and observed several trucks unloading at the site. No fugitive dust was observed during the unloading process. It appears that the fugitive dust issue is resolved."

"This one died of cancer ... this one died of cancer ..."

Walking through the Old Bokoshe community cemetery, Tim Tanksley points to gravestones of those who have died of cancer. “This one died of cancer...this one died of cancer. It’s almost mind boggling,” he said. After requests by InsideClimate News for data on cancer diagnoses in Bokoshe, the Oklahoma Central Cancer Registry said it would look into the reports of a potential cancer cluster later this summer. It will be the first time health officials have investigated the concerns there.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ICN: How did your early-career assistantship with Ansel Adams influence you?

Carlan Tapp: There was a very interesting philosophy in how Ansel used his photography and that was probably a big influence on me. He used his work in such a way to bring about awareness for the natural environment and what was happening.

ICN: How did you start photographing coal ash?

Tapp: I started in the Navajo Nation looking at health issues, and those kept pointing toward issues with the burning of coal. I did more and more research, and then really spent a lot of time talking to the elders and people who were living in this immediate environment and experiencing tremendous health issues with the burning of coal and the residue of coal—coal ash. That started the whole investigative thing.

When they had the big spill in Tennessee, I immediately picked up on that and knew what the consequences of that really were. I had a photography student who was a toxicologist on Three Mile Island. I got to know him fairly well. He gave me the low-down and that opened up my eyes to a lot more.

Photographer Carlan Tapp

Carlan Tapp

It was always amazing to me because I found one underlying constant in all this stuff: that in the United States we were taking very toxic material and we were putting it into the poorest communities without a lot of concern—if any concern—for the effects on people, on human beings. So that was kind of the beginning.

ICN: How did you first hear about Bokoshe?

Tapp: I was on my way back from Uniontown, Alabama and someone had told me, you should really check this out. There's a coal ash waste pit in this town and the name of the company is Making Money Having Fun. So that got my antennae up right away about what they must be doing.

ICN: When did you go to Bokoshe and why?

Tapp: I was covering the BP oil spill down in the Gulf. I called my wife Nancy and said, 'I think I'm done down here.' That was my second or third trip down to BP. So she said, out of the clear blue sky, 'Well, how far are you from that little place we talked about, Bokoshe, Oklahoma? You need to go there and see what's up.'

So I found some contacts there and gave them a call.

ICN: What was that first trip like?

Tapp: There's no place to stay around that immediate area at all. It's fairly rural, very low income. There's not much left in the town of Bokoshe, which at one point was actually a fairly thriving little community, economically. So I stayed a little distance away.

The next morning, I was going to go into town and stop at this place called Sassy's Cafe to meet these folks. So I drive into town, and that also happens to be where these trucks that carry all the ash turn to drive out to the pit site. My jaw dropped. I parked my car and the street is full of light gray coal ash. I'd been around the stuff enough to recognize it. This is toxic material and it's lining the streets. That was my initial observation and also literally one of those 'I can't believe what I'm seeing here' kind of things.

ICN: Why did you keep going back?

Tapp: My work is more long term, to engage and get to know a community and see what's going on. On the first trip, I went to stop by and ended up spending a week there. Every morning I'd go to the cafe and engage more people, and they'd say, 'Well, you should talk to so-and-so.' That started that whole process.

I took the initial piece of work, came home and started thinking more about it and seeing what the real issues were. The more I looked at it, the more questions I had. So that drove me to go back again and again, now for six years.

One of the things that started to become very apparent to me was that we were not looking at the health issues that were starting to really pop up all over the place. When I got down to Bokoshe and I saw that it was handled without any kind of respect for the people or the community, that drove me to want to go back.

ICN: How many trips have you made?

Tapp: Five trips in 2010 alone. Probably 10 to 12 at least in the last six years.

ICN: What changes have you seen in Bokoshe over the years?

Tapp: I've seen a lot of people pass away that I met when I first went there. It's unbelievable. You go to enough places and you do this kind of work—these people become your family. You see what they experience in so many different ways.

I've seen sixth-grade kids where over half of them have asthma and there's a locker full of inhalers. The trucks would be so dirty running from the power plant into town that the stuff would just be blowing off of them. They'll get some complaints and clean them up a little bit. But when I was just there a month ago I was looking at the sides of the roads and everything, and you go out towards the pit, and it's still all there.

I've seen the town slowly but surely diminishing even more. Sassy's Cafe is closed now. There are two convenience gas stations there and that's all.

People that I know really well, I've seen their health go downhill at a rapid pace. People like Charles Tackett. When I first photographed him and met him, he was still able to work and now he's lost his home, which he lived in for 27 years, because of health issues.

I have not seen the kind of attention and awareness that this situation should have, and that disappoints me. I've seen the EPA come out, do some water things but never go out again. The state of Oklahoma should be ashamed of itself.

It's hard to see these things. It's hard to come home after you see it.

ICN: What drives you to do this kind of work?

Tapp: My grandfather seven times back was the last chief of our tribe, the Wicomico in Virginia. He butted heads in the encroachment on the tribal land by Captain John Smith, and he did so because he was standing up for his people. And I guess that has been pushed forward to me since day one, with my family and my father and what he instilled in me. I'm very thankful that he instilled it. I think about the work in the context of seven generations. When I had my first granddaughter, that's when I really started to think about, what if I just did nothing? What if I turned my head and said this is not important, and she found out about that. What would she have to be proud of?

I had a dream one night, my granddaughters had come to me and they said, 'Grandfather, what were you doing as all this stuff was unraveling?' I woke up from that dream about 10 years ago and I thought, 'Well, at least I'll say that we tried to do this.'

ICN: How do you balance the role of being a documentarian and an advocate for Bokoshe?

Tapp: I always like to make a couple of things really clear because I feel really strong about it. I'm not an environmentalist. I don't consider myself to be an activist. I'm not going to be out there carrying a sign, yelling and screaming or anything else. I'm going to use my camera and point it in a direction that is as honest as I can be.

ICN: What is your goal and hope for the people of Bokoshe?

Tapp: Currently in Bokoshe, it's a free-for-all for the coal ash. They dump it on the ground, the wind comes up, it covers the town, it poisons the people, they die of cancer.

We've got to clean up Bokoshe. We've got to stop this cancer rate. And the people who are ill, we have to take care of them. To see them lose their homes, to see them lose their lives. They're operating on a shoestring to begin with. In this country today, that's not right in my book.

A huge step for Bokoshe in my book would be to get a very extensive health study started there.

ICN: Are there other Bokoshes out there?

Tapp: I get emails and calls from other communities that say, 'We've seen some of your work. Would you consider coming to our community?' It's a matter of our funds, which are so limited.

I wish there were more hours in the day.

ICN: As a photographer, how do you know when you're done telling a story? When will you be done telling Bokoshe's story?

Tapp: I could close my notebook on it if the pit was closed down, properly covered and taken care of in some way, shape or form. It's the legacy stuff. If that was done and there was a really good health study that went on to help all the people who are suffering with illness there, then I'd say okay, story finished.

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