EPA Coal Ash Hearings Intensify, Tennessee Hearing Added Following Controversy

Reversing its embarrassing oversight, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has added one final public hearing on coal ash regulatory proposals, to be held fittingly in Tennessee, the state that suffered the worst coal ash disaster in U.S. history in December 2008.

An EPA spokesperson confirmed that the final public hearing will take place the week of October 25th in Knoxville, Tennessee, although the exact date and location have yet to be announced.

So far, the public hearings on proposed coal ash regulations have been well-attended. ENS reported that the Dallas hearing last Wednesday was "packed" with "hundreds of residents from four states... urging the agency to adopt the stronger of two plans to regulate the waste from coal-fired power plants."

But the intensity of the hearings picked up significantly today in Charlotte, NC, where the comments kicked off with a standing-room-only crowd ready for a marathon 13-plus hour hearing that could possibly stretch until midnight as hundreds of concerned residents, and a handful of coal industry lobbyists, voice their opinions.

As of 5pm EST, only 120 of the 453 people signed up to comment had been heard from, ensuring a late night ahead. According to hearing attendees I spoke to earlier, the EPA has been very accommodating of walk-ins who did not pre-register to comment, and appears to be making every effort to hear from anyone who shows up.

I have heard several examples of some of the powerful testimony offered by coal ash victims so far today, including a Pennsylvania woman who presented homemade jam and garden vegetables that were grown with water from her coal-ash-contaminated well, asking the EPA officials whether they would eat the products knowing about the contamination.

And of course, Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, has been a hot subject among commenters. Most of the 13 coal ash ponds in North Carolina belong to Duke Energy, and Duke has two coal ash ponds near Mountain Island Lake, the main source of Charlotte's drinking water.

Sierra Club member Bill Gupton testified today that, "These aging coal ash ponds - one built in 1957 - are both still unlined, both are still leaching hazardous substances into the ground and contaminating our ground water - a fact documented by Duke Energy's own data."

Upper Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby told me that comments so far have leaned roughly 60-40 in favor of Option C, which would label coal ash as "hazardous waste" and require more federal oversight of coal ash operations. But Lisenby expects that proponents of the industry-friendly Option D will become sparser as the coal lobbyists punch their timecards and head home.

Lisenby reported excellent representation from minority communities in South Carolina who are living with the effects of coal ash every day, and a strong showing of youth traveling from local universities to take part in the hearing. The faith community is also present, including a minister who blessed some people on the forehead with coal ash, Lisenby says.

Appalachian Voices released a statement this afternoon noting that one of the victims of the 2008 TVA coal ash spill - Steve Scarborough, who owns a house that was damaged in the massive Tennessee coal ash disaster - traveled to Charlotte to testify.

The EPA will hear from a lot more Tennessee victims of the TVA spill, thanks to the belated but wise decision to host the final coal ash hearing in Knoxville, just over an hour's drive from the site of the spill.

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has applauded EPA's last-minute change of heart.

"The EPA made exactly the right decision. 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," Alexander said in a statement.

The Knoxville hearing is sure to have an emotionally-charged atmosphere, since it is closest to the site of the TVA disaster. It is still a 350-mile, six-hour drive away for Uniontown, Alabama residents who live near the landfill that is receiving the coal ash from the TVA spill, but perhaps some will make the journey to comment in front of EPA representatives.

The public comment period closes November 19th, so anyone is welcome to tell EPA what you think about the proposed coal ash regulations.

In the meantime, follow the action in Charlotte by checking out Charlotte Business Journal's live blogging, and follow the action on Twitter via the hashtag #coalash.