Tennesseans Voice Coal Ash Concerns Despite EPA Initial Oversight

Guest Blog | September 8, 2010 | Coal, Energy Policy

With the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initially appearing to have ignored TN in the siting of Coal Ash Public Hearings, the citizens of East Tennessee held their own public hearing to ensure their concerns were heard loud and clear.

Residents Gather to Discuss Coal Ash Regulation
Residents gather to discuss coal ash regulation

On September 2, 2010, with a unanimous voice, the people of Roane County and surrounding areas made it known that they strongly support regulating coal ash under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  Coal ash is the waste that devastated Roane County when it erupted from TVA’s Kingston coal ash pond in 2008.  With this terrible disaster still fresh in their minds, residents turned out in large numbers to let EPA know that coal ash should not be ignored for any longer.

Representatives from EPA as well as a representative from Senator Lamar Alexander’s office attended along with media of all stripes.  All of the testimony presented was recorded by a certified court stenographer and the final transcript will be presented to EPA as part of their written record.

On June 21, 2010 the EPA formally proposed two alternative rules to regulate coal ash.  One alternative, Subtitle D, would establish unenforceable suggestions for how to manage the waste.  The other option, Subtitle C, would comprehensively regulate ash as a special hazardous waste from is generation to disposal.  Much more information on the details of this rule can be found on our Learn About page, our Take Action page and on our blog.

EPA additionally announced that it would accept input on whether or not to hold public hearings.  EPA gave until July 21 for people to submit hearing requests, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), along with our allies, submitted a letter asking for public hearings throughout our Southeast region, including in East Tennessee.  To everybody’s surprise, on July 15 –  before the hearing-request period was over – EPA announced 5 hearings, meaning that many requests were not heard!  Worse yet, not one of these 5 hearings was within 300 miles of Roane County, where people have the keenest understanding of what happens when coal ash is left unregulated.

In order to further push EPA to recognize the importance of the Kingston disaster, SACE wrote a second even stronger letter to EPA.  Thirty seven groups and individuals, from 14 states, co-signed this second letter urging EPA to hear the voices of Roane County residents.  And yet, when EPA announced two more hearings, Tennessee was still forgotten.

Local Resident Dan Sweeton (who's wife Beverly spoke later) expresses his support for Subtitle C classification
Local Resident Dan Sweeton (who's wife Beverly spoke later) expresses his support for Subtitle C classification

In an effort to help Tennesseans participate in the civil process despite EPA, SACE, teamed up with Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), Roane County Concerned Citizens, United Mountain Defense, Tennessee Interfaith Power & Light, Cumberland Stewards, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Scott County Environmental Coalition, Tennessee Environmental Council and the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club to form the Citizens’ Coal Ash Hearing Committee.  After weeks of planning, the People’s Coal Ash Hearing happened on the evening of September 2nd and it was a great success.

EPA sent an experienced RCRA attorney to the hearing to present the options for coal ash regulation.  The evening opened with this presentation by Frank Ney, who (for legal reasons) EPA unfortunately instructed to leave once the hearing began.  After Mr. Ney’s presentation the floor was open to the public for comments.

Around 30 citizens, of the 70 in attendance, spoke at the hearing.  They hailed from various parts of Tennessee: Roane County, of course, but also Nashville, Cookeville, Knoxville and Johnson City.  There was even a Kentuckian and a North Carolinian.  Lawyers, scientists, students, activists, retirees and many others spoke and every single commenter spoke strongly in favor of comprehensively regulating coal ash under RCRA Subtitle C.

Citizens concerns included:

* the shortcomings of the test method that EPA has historically used to analyze coal ash;

* their fear of future disasters;

* the weakness of state regulations;

* the unwillingness of state regulators to enforce what regulations do exist; and

* their confusion about the industry’s argument that proper regulation will create a negative stigma around coal ash.

* Most notably, citizens spoke of their personal experiences after the Kingston disaster: They discussed how they were affected and how their neighbors were affected.  They talked about how their lives have changed and how they see this rule as an opportunity to make things safer for others.

The People's Hearing had a strong media turnout.
The People's Hearing had a strong media turnout.

Individuals who were personally affected by the Kingston disaster will deliver their transcripts at the EPA hearing in Charlotte, NC, and selected comments from the People’s Hearing will be read across the country at the other EPA public hearings.

And now the people of Tennessee can be heard again! Just a week after the People’s Hearing, on September 8, EPA finally did the right thing and announced a public hearing in East Tennessee.  Perhaps the People’s Hearing was enough evidence for EPA that Roane County should not be ignored.  Certainly, Senator Alexander’s support for a local hearing and the letters that SACE and others sent to EPA were also instrumental.

“To have a hearing on coal ash without asking Tennesseans our opinion is like having a hearing on Katrina without asking the citizens of New Orleans what they think or asking the residents of the Gulf Coast what they think about the Gulf oil spill,” he (Sen. Alexander) said.

Regardless of the catalyst, there will be a hearing in Knoxville, Tennessee in the last week of October.  EPA has not yet released the details, but in conjunction with the People’s Hearing, this official forum will be another excellent opportunity to express support for real regulation of coal ash under Subtitle C.  Stay tuned for further details.

To read some of the media coverage surrounding the People’s Hearing, see this Knoxville News Sentinel editorial, this op-ed from the Tennessean, this news article from the Tennessean this news article from the News Sentinel, and this feature from the Knoxville Metro Pulse.  Also, please visit the Roane County News for their local story.

This blog was edited by Ulla Reeves ulla[at]cleanenergy.org.

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