Yesterday was the last of a series of public hearings held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding its proposed coal ash regulations. The hearing was held in Knoxville, Tenn., about 30 miles from the coal ash spill that got everyone's attention. But it was quite different from Charlotte's hearing.
For one thing, the venue was fancier and larger. In Charlotte, when you walked into the Holiday Inn down by the airport, you couldn't help but encounter people involved in the hearing. In Knoxville, the hearing was at a huge Marriott hotel near the city's downtown district. If you didn't go there specifically for the hearing, you'd never have known one was going on. The hearing was held downstairs, out of sight.
Also, while Charlotte's 13-hour hearing was backed for many hours, the Knoxville hearing looked empty. What I discovered was people were coming in, commenting and leaving. In Charlotte, people hung out sometimes for hours. At both hearings, a couple hundred people spoke. Also at both hearings, comments were divided somewhat evenly as far as I could tell on both sides of the issue.
Right after arriving at the hearing, I spoke with a representative from the EPA who told me the families affected by the coal ash spill in December 2008 were warned away from the hearing by their attorneys and that many of them had moved away. Additionally, he said the message at the hearing, with few exceptions, was on repeat. To summarize: Those who work for companies that create or use coal ash want lenient regulations and everyone else wants stronger regulations.
Another thing that was different at yesterday's hearing: The hotel allowed environmentalists to rent a room. While the Holiday Inn in Charlotte originally told environmentalists they could rent a room, they changed their tune and rented the same space to coal industry lobbyists instead. And in Knoxville, environmentalists were able to hold a small Halloween-themed protest outside of the hearing. In Charlotte, the planned protest was quashed by the Holiday Inn. The company has yet to explain why.
One more thing: At yesterday's hearing there was a screening of the documentary "Perry County." That's the county in Alabama where the sludge from the coal ash spill in Tennessee is being dumped. It's one of the poorest in Alabama.
With that, I can't report any new news out of yesterday's hearing other than the fact that they're finally over and we'll hear back from the EPA ... well, the when part is unclear. But I can show you the photos I took both at the hearing and near the coal plant that created the disaster.
From what I saw, everything looks normal in Kingston, Tenn. (That's the town surrounding the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal plant.) But, there are a lot of for-sale signs in front of expensive-looking houses. And my GPS freaked out once I passed the "locals only beyond this point" sign, coloring the roads hazard yellow.
If you were unable to attend the hearings, but would still like to comment, you can sign the North Carolina Conservation Network's petition or send in your own comments. The deadline is Nov. 19. The Catawba Riverkeeper has created a few easy buttons for you at the bottom of this linked page.
Rhiannon "Rhi" Bowman is an independent journalist who contributes snarky commentary on Creative Loafing's CLog blog four days a week in addition to writing for several other local media organizations. To learn more, click the links or follow Rhi on Twitter.