A public with lots to tell EPA about coal ash

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Diane Hofner had a banner full of pictures and a six-minute power point presentation to display what she calls “unsupervised” pollution — black, oily coal ash being strewn on the roads in her hometown of Portland, New York.

Barbara Reed brought the piping from her basement and a bottle of water, labeled “TOXIC,” to highlight what she believes is contamination from a coal ash pond in southwestern Pennsylvania.

James McGrath carried what he terms his “murder book,” stuffed with documents that he and fellow residents in Giles County, Virginia, obtained through public records requests, to illustrate how a real-estate project using coal ash has stirred, in his words, “a world of trouble” for his neighborhood.

Hofner, Reed, McGrath and hundreds of other ordinary citizens showed up with props in hand in such locales as Denver, Dallas, and Chicago, to testify at a series of all-day hearings on a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to begin regulating the disposal of coal ash — an environmental hazard detailed in a Center for Public Integrity investigation last year. And those folks, and thousands of others — utility executives, scientific experts, environmental advocates, state regulators, and industry lobbyists — have been busily working on written comments in response to the agency’s 563-page draft plan. Those comments are due by today.

The EPA’s draft plan includes two options. The first would essentially classify coal ash as “hazardous,” and require strict controls for its dumping. The second would deem it “non-hazardous,” and subject it to less stringent national standards that amount to guidelines for the states.

Sources inside the EPA say they have received more than 250,000 comments so far, which they are just beginning to review. The agency has no official timeline for finalizing its plan, and many observers are not expecting word any time soon. “It will be at least a year until there’s a rule,” asserts Tom Adams, who heads the American Coal Ash Association, echoing a common sentiment.

With the help of American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, the Center asked citizens to tell us what they knew about coal ash and how it may be affecting their lives. Hofner, McGrath, and Reed are among the nearly three dozen residents who live near coal-burning plants and their ash sites and who responded, representing states such as Indiana, Florida, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Many of the citizens said they volunteer for environmental groups, or work on environmental policy. Some work in coal plants themselves, or for companies that promote the “beneficial re-use” of coal ash in a myriad of products.

More than half of the citizens reported that their states inadequately regulate coal ash, and attributed a host of problems — groundwater pollution, fugitive dust, and poor health — to lax enforcement or insufficient requirements for the ash. Another half dozen citizens reported their states already provide careful oversight of coal ash, on the other hand, and said they worry further regulation will harm an industry that provides good-paying jobs to their regions.

The following is an edited sampling of what some of these citizens said they’d like to tell the EPA about coal ash, and the need for federal regulation:

"You can manage coal ash and then you can regulate it. You can manage it and that can be done just fine by the power plant. The nature of regulating coal ash, that’s just another step toward increasing requirements on the power plants. We’re in the coal center of Utah and we’d lose a whole section of the economy if it wasn’t for the coal mines and power plants here ... Coal ash could very well be a problem in other areas but in this area here, with our geology and the openness of the plateau, coal ash is not a problem. I would tell the EPA to step out of it and leave it to state and local governments." Jason Knowlton, Castle Dale, UT, an environmental scientist who surveys coal ash piles for the utilities.

"I am in favor of checks and balances offered by [the tougher option.] When the whole United States shows problems with pollution by coal-run power plants, it is obvious they have not had the regulations needed for the industry. Personal experience lets me know they don’t have to be accountable for all their actions under [state guidelines] ...There just needs to be more accountability and, right now, the utilities don’t have it." Barbara Hugier, of Racine, Wisconsin, who lives in a neighborhood polluted with molybdenum that she believes came from a nearby coal ash pond.

"I think [the debate over coal ash] is blown way out of proportion. Coal ash has many beneficial uses. Most of the ash generated and used in our area is alkaline ash ... It can present a dust hazard, and does contain traces of some heavy metals. However, long-term monitoring near [minefill] sites in West Virginia has indicated that heavy metals in the ash are not leaching into surface waters or migrating in groundwater. I think many of the persons who are using terms like “toxic” and “poisonous” in reference to coal ash are fear mongers who are trying to advance an unreasonably restrictive agenda at a time when our country is in a particularly vulnerable economic state."Gary Hilgar, of Kingwood, West Virginia, a geologist who works for the coal industry and who says the practice of minefilling can lessen acid mine drainage.

"There are not very effective state regulations now. The EPA has delegated authority to Nevada under the clean air and clean water acts and there are gaps and holes in the regulations. State regulators routinely brush off responsibility ... The community is outraged because of fugitive dust [from coal ash.] ... At times, it blows right into the community. It ends up in our houses, and we breathe it; it ends up in our food, and we ingest it; it touches our skin ... Our position is there is no safe level of radiation. And because of our past exposure to radiation and weapons testing, we believe we cannot endure any increased burden of risk from any other source, including coal ash."Resident of the Moapa River Indian Reservation, in Moapa, Nevada, where the Band of the Paiutes tribal members are fighting expansion of a coal ash landfill.