Tennessee Coal Ash Hearing Sends EPA Strong Message

Kingston Coal Ash Hearing

Activists hold professional photos of coal ash at EPA hearing

On Wednesday, October 27th, EPA held an 8th and final public hearing on proposed coal ash regulations in Knoxville, TN.  EPA nearly left Tennessee off the list of public hearing sites, but after a SACE-sponsored “People’s Hearing” in Roane County and pressure from Sen. Lamar Alexander, EPA announced a hearing in Knoxville. This initial oversight was a frustration for area residents, but ultimately, East Tennessee hosted the final meeting, a poignant opportunity for those who still live with the dramatic impact of the Kingston coal ash disaster.

EPA’s willingness to come to Tennessee was rewarded.  Unofficial estimates suggest that around 300 people came to Knoxville to participate in the civic process.  Perhaps more importantly, nearly 200 of these speakers supported Subtitle C, the strongest and most comprehensive choice for coal ash regulation.  These supporters expressed a number of diverse arguments and personal reasons for supporting Subtitle C.  Many were residents of Roane County.

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Dr. Stephen Smith speaks to EPA about coal ash

  • One resident, Sarah McCoin said that real coal ash regulations are needed because without them “another community will be affected as we have been.”
  • Others, such as Doctor Steven Gilbert, a toxicologist from Washington state, stated “coal ash imposes unacceptable risks on human health and the environment.”
  • SACE Executive Director, Stephen Smith, argued that Subtitle C regulation is necessary because it creates a federal backstop if states are failing to adopt their own strong regulations.  On Tuesday, October 26th, SACE released a report documenting the insufficient state regulatory system in Tennessee.  Smith further explained that “it is inexcusable for any state, Tennessee in particular, to operate without proactive and enforceable coal ash laws.”

Advocates of weak federal guidelines, known as Subtitle D, made similar arguments over and over, at this hearing and at others. Subtitle D supporters were by-and-large represented by the coal ash reuse industry, which purchases the waste from coal plants and puts it to use in manufactured products such as bricks and cement or landscaping projects such as structural fill for highway overpasses and golf courses.  These “recyclers” feel that regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste will place a stigma on their business.  SACE supports certain demonstrably safe forms of coal ash recycling, but this stigma argument fails in a number of ways.  First, coal ash will not actually be classified as a hazardous waste, it will receive a “special waste” designation under Subtitle C.  This designation means, among other things, that when ash is destined for a beneficial use, it will still be unregulated.  In addition, EPA’s own analysis suggests that Special Waste designation will actually increase beneficial uses because the costs of ash disposal under Subtitle C will increase, thereby incentivizing recycling as opposed to dumping.

Aside from the technical and policy arguments, Roane County resident Steve Scarborough told the industry supporters, “if you want to see “stigma” just come out to Roane County and see what it is like trying to put your life, business, and property values back together after you get hit by the mother of all stigmas.”

Students rally at EPA hearing: Coal Ash is Scary!

Students rally at EPA hearing: Coal Ash is Scary!

Protestor in costume at Coal Ash is Scary! rally

Protestor in costume at Coal Ash is Scary! rally

Besides formal EPA testimony, events surrounding the hearing and arranged by SACE and other allies included a well-attended press conference and a screening of the film “Perry County”, which details the plight of the town in Alabama where TVA currently dumps the Kingston ash (new announcement shows shipments will end soon!).  Speakers at the press conference included SACE’s Steve Smith, Roane Countian Sarah McCoin, Activist and member of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) Cathie Bird, Toxicologist Dr. Steven Gilbert, and noted environmental photographer J. Henry Fair.  Wrapping up the day, SACE, United Mountain Defense and the University of Tennessee student environmental group, SPEAK, organized a “Coal Ash Is Scary” rally with 100 students in Halloween costumes.  The students also presented powerful testimony from the perspective of young people who will cope with the dangers of coal ash for years to come.  One student even told the EPA “you’re  not getting any younger, don’t look back and regret that you didn’t do the right thing.”

After 8 public hearings with upwards of 20,000 total speakers and well over 200,000 written comments already in their hands, EPA may take a long time to finalize their ruling, but in the end, thousands have voiced their serious concerns for public health and the environment and their support for regulating coal ash under Subtitle C.  Hopefully EPA will listen.

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