State officials feeling left out during coal ash tour

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Published: September 3,2010

Tags: energy, environment, utilities

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — The Environmental Protection Agency is hearing gripes from Tennessee and Alabama officials who feel left out as the agency goes across the country asking if coal ash should be federally regulated as a hazardous material.

Those are the two states most affected by the Dec. 2008 spill in East Tennessee that sent a wave of toxic-laden coal ash and sludge into the Emory River and covered 300 acres, damaging homes, burying roads and raising health concerns. Some residents near a garbage landfill in rural west Alabama are not happy about trainloads of the ash being shipped to their neighborhood for disposal.

The EPA is holding public hearings in Virginia, Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Kentucky before deciding if coal ash will be regulated for the first time as a “special” hazardous material.

EPA officials aren’t saying why the agency won’t put Tennessee on the hearing schedule. EPA e-mails say the agency has held public hearings in Tennessee since the spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Plant and anyone who wants to comment can send an e-mail message or letter until the comment period ends Nov. 19.

EPA officials did not answer an Associated Press e-mail asking if they might add Tennessee and Alabama to the schedule of public hearings that continue through September.

One Tennessee politician, Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, wants a public hearing in Tennessee.

“The Kingston spill dumped 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash in Roane County and may cost TVA ratepayers as much as $1.2 billion in cleanup costs,” he said in an e-mail statement. “Having hearings on coal ash without asking Tennesseans what they think would be like having hearings on Katrina without asking people in New Orleans what they think or on the oil spill without asking people who live on the Gulf what they think.”

TVA is battling federal lawsuits seeking damages from the spill At the first public hearing, held Monday in Arlington, Va., environmental activists said federal regulation is needed because state regulation has failed. Representatives of industries that use recycled coal ash in concrete, drywall and other construction materials contend that regulating it as hazardous substance would devastate the recycling business.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, whose west Alabama district includes the landfill that is getting paid to take the spilled TVA coal ash, said there is a “lot of opposition to the storage of coal ash” at the landfill in Perry County, Ala., and there is still mistrust of local officials who agreed to accept it.

“I certainly wish they had come to Alabama and wish they had held hearings in west Alabama,” Davis said.

“The hearing has to be in the community of impact,” said John Wathen, an environmental activist in west Alabama who is director of Hurricane Creekkeeper.

Wathen, who traveled to the EPA’s first hearing, said the trip cost about $1,000.

“Our people down there are too poor to get on airplanes and fly 1,000 miles,” he said. “They just can’t do it. But they are the ones who can’t eat the food they grow because coal ash is blowing across their property.”

Davis said he hopes the EPA will not leave coal ash regulations to states.

He said Alabama “is a state of a notoriously weak regulators.”and a bench trial has been set for Sept. 2011.

EPA is deciding how to regulate the power plant ash that contains arsenic, selenium, mercury and other substances that are defined as hazardous.

A report released in August shows that TVA-funded medical screenings of more than 200 residents near the ash spill in Roane County found no related adverse health effects. A draft report released in December by the Tennessee Department of Health said the spill poses little potential for harm to public health outside the contained spill area on the Emory River.

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