Pro-Coal, Pro-Environment Groups Speak at EPA Coal Ash Hearing

It's nearly two years after one of the country's worst environmental disasters--a coal ash storage pond breached its walls in Tennessee--spilling millions of cubic yards of coal ash containing lead and thallium onto land and water. For the first time, the federal government is stepping in. The Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, one of seven being held throughout the country, on its proposals for coal ash disposal. The Allegheny Front's Ashley Murray was there.

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OPEN: It's nearly two years after one of the country's worst environmental disasters--a coal ash storage pond breached its walls in Tennessee--spilling millions of cubic yards of coal ash containing lead and thallium onto land and water. For the first time, the federal government is stepping in. The Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, one of seven being held throughout the country, on its proposals for coal ash disposal. The Allegheny Front's Ashley Murray was there.

MURRAY: EPA has two options on the table to handle the 136 million tons of ash generated each year from burning coal. Environmental groups favored a stricter option while industry supported a less-restrictive plan.

Under the stricter option, EPA and states would oversee coal ash disposal. This proposal would eliminate surface storage impoundments and require ash to be disposed of in landfills with groundwater monitoring. It would also require permits and allow for enforcement actions by states and EPA.

Elisa Young brought along a sample of debris from her driveway that she said came from ash that had been used to make roads passable in the winter.

YOUNG: This was at the edge of our road. You see, they're running out of places to put this.

MURRAY: Young lives near a surface impoundment in Ohio. She left the debris on the table where EPA reps were seated.

YOUNG: We have four coal-fired plants generating this stuff and if it costs them money to put it in a landfill, then that's an expense. If they can create a product out of it, then they're generating a profit from what would normally be considered hazardous or toxic waste from my perspective. They call it beneficial use. It's beneficial to the industry but not to our communities.

MURRAY: The EPA says coal ash contains mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which are associated with cancer. Environmental groups say scientific data supports ash being classified as hazardous. Like Beverly Braverman, executive director of the Mountain Watershed Association in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

BRAVERMAN: We do not have as much coal ash as elsewhere in Pennsylvania, but it is a major issue with anyone who cares about their clean water, the health of their community, the future of their children. Obviously the state is not doing an adequate job of regulating it.

MURRAY: Industry groups supported the second option, which classifies coal ash as non-hazardous and allows disposal in surface impoundments with liners. This would not require permits, and there would not be federal enforcement.

Craig Shamory, environmental manager of PPL Corporation favors this proposal, saying that he's concerned that the stricter option would hamper the waste's so-called beneficial use in products like wallboard and concrete:

SHAMORY: A federally regulated Subtitle D nonhazardous waste option along the lines of Pennsylvania's successful program would support beneficial use of this large mineral resource. Conversely, Federal Subtitle C hazardous waste regulations would severely limit and most likely eliminate beneficial uses including cement industry applications and mine reclamation. Beneficial uses create thousands of jobs and provide their own significant environmental benefits.

MURRAY: One more hearing is scheduled to take place next week in Kentucky. The public comment period closes on November 19, 2010.

Reporting at the EPA hearing For The Allegheny Front, I'm Ashley Murray.