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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