Reflecting on the coal ash hearing

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Bill Gupton, of the Sierra Club
  • Bill Gupton, of the Sierra Club

Tuesday was a long day for those of us who attended the EPA's coal ash hearing start to finish. Sign-in began at 8:30 a.m. and a handful of environmentalists, EPA employees and a couple journalists were still there after 11 p.m. waiting for any stragglers to speak. (People were signed up to speak at that time, but some didn't show.)

It's no exaggeration to say hundreds of people attended and spoke. The day was truly a wonderful display of democracy in action. The EPA attentively listened as speaker after speaker took the podium, some more prepared than others, sharing their stories about how the agency's proposed regulations will impact their lives, businesses and communities.

The hearing represented an opportunity for citizens of all stripes to weigh in on whether or not coal ash should be classified as a hazardous waste. If it is, energy companies will be required to do some clean up work and the federal government will supervise. If it's not, the states will remain in charge and the much weaker regulations will only be enforced if citizens sue. (Review the key differences between the two options here.)

It's an issue that's been brewing for decades, and, so far, the coal ash and waste management industries have succeeded in their attempts to avoid federal oversight; however, after the 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee, everyone began taking coal ash more seriously. We've since discovered the stuff is not a benign substance — it's full of things that are already listed as hazardous heavy metals (like mercury and arsenic) and is even considered radioactive. We also discovered it's everywhere, and in a lot of products that shape our lives — like concrete and shingles.

Allen Stowe, from Duke Energy
  • Allen Stowe, from Duke Energy

In general, the people who advocated for coal ash to be regulated as a hazardous waste were from environmental and religious groups, though a couple political leaders — like Pricey Harrison, a North Carolina legislator from Greenville — and many concerned citizens also chimed in. On the other side, those who pushed for a non-hazardous classification were from energy companies or companies that transport or use coal ash in their products. From them, we garnered the word of the day: Stigma.

The EPA's proposed regulations — both options — "strongly encourage" the reuse of coal ash in products where it's encapsulated, like concrete, and they've decided not to rule yet on whether or not the stuff can continue being shoved into abandoned mines. The only other repurposing of coal ash the agency's concerned with at the moment is the stuff that's used as cheap landfill beneath new construction sites, golf courses, parks and the like since rainwater can wash it into waterways ... which leads to the issue of contaminated ground and surface water, tainted by drainage from unlined landfills and coal ash ponds. That reality makes coal ash a huge deal for Charlotte, since two unlined, high-hazard coal ash ponds drain, at the rate of millions of gallons per day, into our main drinking water reservoir.

The coal ash industry says, however, even with that protection from the EPA, a hazardous waste classification will — and in some cases already has — stigmatize their businesses. They warned jobs would be lost and the cost of electricity will rise. Toward the latter part of the hearing, environmentalists attempted to turn that argument back on the industrialists, saying anything that increases people's risk of developing cancer by 2,000 percent should be stigmatized. Many outright said they thought the "stigma" argument is bunkus public relation double-speak meant to confuse the issue.

There were some dramatic moments, of course, but nothing too exciting. One woman brought the agency some water from her home, which she suspects is contaminated with coal ash ingredients, and asked if they were willing to drink it. (They weren't.) Another woman told of living between several coal ash ponds, her family's cancer and the fact that her well water is contaminated and her property is regularly covered in coal ash dust. She brought the EPA a bag of the stuff, which looks a lot like black baby powder, and some jelly, made with produce from her ash-covered garden that was watered with water from her contaminated well. She told the agency's employees they were welcome to sample it. (They didn't.) A local minister used her time at the podium to cross people's foreheads with coal ash as a symbol of repentance.

Unfortunately, there were several tales of people's properties being coated in coal ash, one from the Mountain Island Lake Commission's own Ann Danzi. She lives in the Stonewater neighborhood, across the street from the two Duke Energy coal ash ponds behind their Riverbend plant.

In the end, there was no fighting, no ugliness, no winners and no losers. (Though I did overhear some coal ash industry people making fun of environmentalists as they testified, which I personally found to be rude. Why they decided to stand and sit around a reporter live-Tweeting the event I'll never understand. And, I heard tale of environmentalists hissing, but I missed that display.)

The EPA has not said when they expect to decide on coal ash regulation (they originally promised it by Dec. 31, 2009), though it's suspected there will be another round of hearings once they do and implementation of either option will take some time. Tomorrow, the EPA will conduct another hearing in Chicago.

The reality is we're all in this together, however the EPA decides to go. We can't ignore the coal ash ponds, landfills and products that are already in place. They will need to be monitored forever to ensure the safety of our drinking water. We also can't ignore the fact that, in many cases, coal ash waste can be repurposed to make cheaper, stronger concrete and other products (it costs roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of what comparable products cost).

The coal ash industry has been stigmatized in the past. In the 1970s, the stuff was known as "fly trash." But once people got past the label and took a second look at the sticker price, they got over that stigma. Whether they will or not this go around remains to be seen. What we know for sure is these companies are in the business of making money, so they'll adjust one way or another to keep their bottom line in the black.

Another fact we need to get real about is this: We create coal ash when we use electricity. If you'd like to see less coal ash in our world, use less electricity.

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know I did testify yesterday. Frankly, I felt a moral obligation to do so, though it's an unusual move for a journalist (good thing I'm not interested in being a usual-kinda journalist). You see, my home state of Alabama is where a lot of un-reusable coal ash ends up, and it's dumped in communities where the people are poor. Since the less stringent of the two regulations is only enforceable by citizen lawsuits, and since there will be no hearing on this topic held in Alabama where the coal ash from the TVA disaster is being landfilled, I felt I needed to stand up for the people of my home state. I've included my testimony below (which I wish I could edit now, but that is what I said ...)

A side note: Originally, environmental groups planned to stage a protest, but the Holiday Inn, where the hearing was held, blocked their path. According to Donna Lisenby, the Upper Watauga Riverkeeper and a staff member of Appalachian Voices, her organizations, and others, solicited the hotel at least three times in an attempt to rent space, an area near the pool, at the hotel. Twice they were quoted a price, once for $500 and a second time for $1,500, which they agreed to pay, but the rental contract never arrived. Finally, they were told the hotel wasn't interested in renting the space, although weddings and other events are sometimes held there. The groups also attempted to rent a conference room at the hotel, but were told by Holiday Inn staff that the EPA had already rented the space. So, you can imagine the environmentalists' surprise when, instead, they arrived at the hearing only to find out the space was actually rented to coal ash industry groups, not the EPA. By the way, a representative from Holiday Inn said she can't comment on the environmentalists' allegations.

Further reading:

My testimony:

My name is Rhiannon Bowman, I am an independent journalist. As the crow flies, I live about a mile from the two unlined, high-hazard coal ash ponds on the edge of Mountain Island Lake — also known as the Charlotte-metro region's drinking water. I've spent a lot of time researching and writing about those ponds, but I'm here to talk to you about how your proposed regulatory options effect the people in my home state of Alabama.

Historically, the state dumps hazardous and non-hazardous waste much closer to poor people than to middle class or rich people. Under Subtitle D, your proposed regulation is enforced only through citizen lawsuits. Now, that doesn't make any sense to me. We're going to dump waste next to people with little money then dare them to challenge us? Those people likely can't afford to do anything more than beg and pray.

As a society, we must do a better job of protecting every element of the population. Because enforcement through citizen lawsuits is cost prohibitive for the very people we're expecting to shoulder the burden of our electricity addiction, I must support the institution of Subtitle C (which will classify coal ash as a hazardous waste).

The poor folks in Alabama deserve better; every citizen in the United States deserves to enjoy true regulatory protection from your agency. It's not your job to worry about the coal industry's profits. It's your job to protect us and our land. Energy companies are in the business of making money. They will overcome any hurdle put in the way of making their shareholders happy.

Further, your own numbers indicate the health benefits outweigh the costs of clean up many times over.

Thank you.

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