Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Coal ash hearings criticized, as no hearings planned near Tennessee

WASHINGTON — One irony did not go unnoticed Monday as environmentalists and coal-industry representatives squared off in the first public hearing on proposals to regulate coal ash.

None of the planned hearings are in Tennessee, where a massive coal ash spill at TVA's Kingston coal-fired power plant triggered the current effort. 

Rebecca Kolberg, an environmental activist from Pasadena, Md., said it's an "outrage" and an "insult to the community" that none of the hearings will take place near the East Tennessee town.

The Environmental Protection Agency is holding seven hearings before an expected ruling next year on how coal ash might be regulated. The most stringent proposal on the table would designate the material, which contains mercury, arsenic and other potentially poisonous substances, as hazardous.
Environmentalists say this would protect the public from cancer and other health problems associated with the substances found in fly ash and other coal combustion byproducts.
Witnesses representing utilities and companies that use coal waste in commercial products countered that more aggressive regulation would drive up the cost of electricity and reduce recycling of coal waste, forcing more of it to be stored in waste dumps.
They support a more modest alternative that would leave regulatory decisions to the states.
None of the people scheduled to testify at Monday's hearing live near the Kingston coal-fired electric plant, but witnesses made many references to the December 2008 spill of 5 million cubic yards of ash at the plant.
Michael Jackson, district attorney for the county in Alabama where the Kingston ash was taken for disposal, said the area was chosen because the people living there are poor and powerless.
"We need help," Jackson said.
Several speakers showed blown-up photos of the devastation caused when a dike burst at a storage pond at the Kingston site.

3 minutes to speak

About 200 people were scheduled to testify at Monday's hearing, which was expected to go past its scheduled 9 p.m. ending time. More than 2,800 comments about the proposed regulations have been filed electronically. In response to many requests, the deadline for submitting comments was extended recently by two months to Nov. 19, and two additional public hearings were added.

Nick Goldstein with the American Road & Transportation Builders Association said the use of coal ash in cement is an "environmental success story" because the ash strengthens the cement, avoids the need to store the ash in landfills and cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions, partly through less-frequent replacement of cement.

EPA officials say they don't plan to stop the safe use of ash and other coal waste in some products, but Goldstein and others representing the ash recycling sector said the proposed regulations would stigmatize the material and decrease its use. Danny Gray, executive vice president of Louisville-based Charah Inc., said his company's management of coal combustion waste already has declined based on publicity about possible dangers.
Environmentalists who support the safe recycling of coal ash have said designation as hazardous would make companies more likely to push its reuse to avoid costly disposal.
Eric Schaeffer with the Environmental Integrity Project castigated the EPA for not doing more to investigate possible damage to water caused by coal waste. He encouraged the agency to follow the law and science without getting bogged down in the back and forth that characterized Monday's testimony.
"I don't think this is the type of decision you can make by letting us fight like gladiators," Schaeffer said.
But fight they did, with each speaker given three minutes at a small lectern in a basement conference room of an Arlington, Va., hotel. Four EPA representatives sat at a small table, with one counting down the time.

Emotions pour out

Speaking in favor of the proposed regulations were representatives of the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other major environmental groups, as well as conservation groups such as the Izaak Walton League and the National Wildlife Federation.
Opponents included the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, which represents 80 utility companies, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the National Ready Mix Concrete Association.
Some speakers recited their prepared testimony with little emotion, reading at a rapid clip to stay within time constraints. Others, such as John Wathen of Tuscaloosa, Ala., were angry.
Wathen, with his white hair in a ponytail and wearing a T-shirt that read "Clean coal is a dirty lie," described himself as an environmental investigator. He said he canoed at the Kingston site shortly after the spill to gather samples. And he said he saw ash dredged from the site being intentionally washed into a creek at the Perry County, Ala., disposal site.
Wathen told the EPA officials that if they fail to adopt the proposed coal ash regulations, "you're nothing more than environmental criminals."


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