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EPA can’t ignore the people’s voice

The Environmental Protection Agency’s choice of communities where it is holding public hearings on the handling of coal-combustion waste, surprisingly, excluded Tennessee. Yet the dangers of current methods had become all too evident in the TVA ash-impoundment rupture two years ago, and affected residents from Harriman and many communities in surrounding counties last week came to a “People’s Coal Ash Hearing” to voice their concern and action demands.
A billion gallons of coal-ash muck had flowed out in that accident, uprooting trees, damaging or ripping homes from their foundation and filling large areas of the Emory and Clinch rivers, killing the fish. Exclusive of long-term costs, TVA estimated the clean-up costs at between $525 and $825 million.
Some 500 impoundments for coal-ash waste from electricity generation have been on the EPA’s “active worries” list for a decade.
It had found arsenic, boron, mercury and various other toxic substances in groundwater around most of the impoundments examined, often many times above the drinking-water standard and often contaminating residential wells nearby.
In 2005 it had reported alarm over findings that “the great majority of coal ash is allowed to be disposed into groundwater tables,” as basic safeguards such as composite liners and leachate collection are not required in most states.
Human health effects from the pollutants in coal-ash waste, as documented by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control include cancers of various organs, birth defects and impaired bone growth in children, gastrointestinal illness and ulcers, dermatitis and allergies, and a host of other nasty problems.
In 2009 the EPA finally took the action it had long considered would be needed. The proposal it then drafted placed such left-over coal ash as cannot be appropriately “bound” in beneficial uses (such as in Portland cement) into a special waste category to which the (Subtitle C) hazard guidelines of national waste-disposal regulations apply. Permits for this waste would encompass strict standards for its safe containment, and emergency response plans and financial assurance requirements should accidents occur or contamination be found. The EPA would have authority to inspect sites for compliance and enforce against violations.
The electricity industry and other interests with power to influence policy seemingly have been disposed, however, to deny the need for stringent safety standards in this matter. In an unfortunate “second-round” development the EPA is now suggesting two options for coal-waste handling. One would keep it under the earlier proposed, Subtitle C guidelines.
The other would place it under Subtitle D of the waste regulations which, while a step-up from no oversight at all would allow it to be treated like ordinary household waste, with glaring lack of requirement of minimal safety-standards uniformity across the states, or of monitoring or enforcement of such.
The people from Tennessee who experienced the coal-ash disaster and spoke at “their hearing” were of a different mind. It’s not a matter of “options,” they held, but of urgent need of a protective regulatory framework to prevent or contain the health and ecological hazards involved.