EPA sets public hearings on coal ash disposal options

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Environmental advocates plan to organize citizens by the busload for a series of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency meetings on its proposal to regulate the disposal of coal ash, an environmental hazard that was the subject of an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity last year.

The Center’s probe revealed the human health impact and environmental havoc near ponds, landfills, and pits where coal ash is dumped while a debate over federal regulation dragged on for decades. That debate flared anew after a disastrous December 2008 coal-ash spill in Tennessee, a spill which led EPA to pledge to finally regulate the toxic byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity.

The EPA announced today that it will kick off a month-long series of hearings on how to regulate coal ash disposal, beginning August 30 in Arlington, Va. The agency scheduled some hearings in the heart of coal country, where coal ash has long been a problem, such as in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Sept. 21, and in Louisville, Ky., on Sept. 28. Other day-long hearings will take place in states where the future of coal and coal-fired power plants are being debated, such as in Denver, Co., on Sept. 2, and in Chicago, Ill., on Sept. 8.

Last May, after months of behind-the-scenes politicking, the EPA unveiled a 563-page draft plan that would essentially classify coal ash as “hazardous” under federal waste law, triggering a series of strict controls for its dumping. A second option included in the EPA plan would deem coal ash “non-hazardous” and subject it to less stringent national standards amounting to guidelines for the states.

Environmental advocates who back strict federal regulations have been working to organize citizens affected by coal ash ever since. The Sierra Club now has two staff coordinators assigned to each region of the country where EPA will hold public hearings, signing up citizens for bus trips and helping with travel expenses to ensure that their voices are heard.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there that everything is fine,” said Bruce Nilles, director of Sierra Club’s national coal campaign. He expects busloads of people from Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio will attend the hearings to relay their experiences with coal ash’s environmental and human health hazards. “We expect the hearings will be well-attended,” he added.

The EPA plans to review all public comments submitted on its proposal, at the hearings and in writing, before moving on to finalize a regulatory plan.

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