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Monday, September 20,2010

Citizen’s hearing addresses problem of toxic coal ash

By Alexander Menrisky
Citizens stumping for regulation of toxic coal ash met on the Ohio University campus last Thursday, as an alternative to official federal EPA hearings on the topic.

The meeting, held in OU's Bentley Hall, welcomed representatives from a number of organizations, both community-organized and student-led. The organizations came together in light of new information.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency organized eight public hearings across the country, though none was scheduled in Ohio. To make up for what they considered a slight by the agency, several groups decided to come together and hold their own hearing in southeast Ohio, one of the areas that's especially impacted by the issue.

Mattie Reitman, field organizer for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, helped OU students and volunteers from the Appalachian Ohio Group of the Sierra Club organize the hearing.

"We aim to move our economy toward a clean-energy future by stopping new coal-fired plants, phasing out existing plants, and keeping the massive U.S. coal reserves in the ground and out of international markets," Reitman said, explaining the goals of Beyond Coal.

The Sierra Club, Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice last month released a national report on a study that listed 39 new coal combustion waste disposal sites that have contaminated groundwater or surface water with toxic metals and other pollutants. Reitman said the analysis was based on monitoring data and other information available in state agency files.

Reitman explained that the new report builds off of a report released in February 2010, with information regarding similar damage at 31 coal combustion waste dumpsites. The study was undertaken by the EPA and catalyzed by the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant disaster in 2008, in which 1.1 billion gallons of waste were dumped into tributaries of the Tennessee River when a dam broke.

Ohio itself generates 11 million tons of coal ash waste per year, according to the EPA. Contained in the toxic substance are dangerous levels of lead, mercury and arsenic, and a number of other harmful chemicals.

Hannah Simonetti, media spokesperson of Beyond Coal and student at OU, said that there are currently no federal regulations regarding coal ash waste in the United States. She and fellow student Badger Johnson have led the OU involvement in Beyond Coal and helped organize the citizens' hearing.

"Many people are unaware of their strong connection to this issue," Reitman said, referring particularly to students. "We are all involved in coal ash by using electricity, and owe it to ourselves and those most directly impacted by this mess to do something about it."

Elisa Young, a Meigs County activist on the issue who spoke at the citizens' hearing, said that it's important to push for tighter federal regulation of coal plants and waste methods, as states tend to enforce lax policies or entirely exempt coal ash from regulation. Ohio is one of these states, she said, and Appalachia has the second highest concentration of underground coal mines in the country.

Young said that many of her neighbors died in the area surrounding the Gavin power plant and Kyger Creek landfill in Gallia County south of Athens due to toxin-related cancer. Young herself is a cancer survivor after no family history of the disease, she said. Neighborhoods that share space with these coal plants have a 45 percent higher cancer rate than the national average, Young said.

Much of the waste from these local plants is not counted in national statistics, as many locations are able to move the waste off-site for free to be used for other purposes. For example, Athens County, which used coal ash waste as a road de-icer for a number of years, stopped doing so in 2009, Reitman said. Using coal ash on roads is one of the most common forms of under-the-table waste disposal, he added.

The official federal EPA hearings were held where the agency has regional offices. Another unofficial citizens' hearing is scheduled in Meigs County on Nov. 16. An EPA representative has been invited to attend.

OU's Beyond Coal organization aims to move OU's heating plant off coal energy and has several more events lined up in the next few weeks, including a talk on geothermal energy on Friday, Sept. 24 in Bentley Hall room 227.

The local meeting came less than two weeks after thousands of coal miners and other pro-coal advocates rallied in Washington, D.C., to urge less regulation of coal-mining. Speakers, including legislators from Appalachian states, argued that the industry is already over-regulated and that any further restrictions on coal-mining and coal-fired power plants will kill jobs and hurt local Appalachian economies and communities.


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