Advocacy groups explore effects of toxic coal ash at public hearing

Sierra Club Field Organizer Mattie Reitman addresses the attendees of Thursday's public hearing on the issue of coal ash. Photo by Lucas Bechtol, CG News.

By Lucas Bechtol, CG News

About a dozen Southeast Ohio residents gathered in Ohio University’s Bentley Hall Thursday for a chance to speak out on the issue of coal ash, a hazardous byproduct of burning coal for power.

The public hearing gave an overview of coal ash’s alleged dangers and included citizen testimonials about the substance’s effects on people. The event’s organizers, which included OU Beyond Coal and the Appalachian Ohio Group of the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club, planned the hearing in response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to hold such hearings in several coal-producing states.

Ohio is not on the EPA’s list. Thursday’s event was meant as a substitute for the region’s official hearing, which was held Thursday in Chicago.

“This is an important issue in Southeast Ohio and there weren’t any official hearings scheduled near us,” said Mattie Reitman, a field organizer for the Sierra Club.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal at power plants. It contains pollutants and toxic metals such as lead and mercury, according to the EPA. The substance is often stored in surface impoundments and landfills, but it can also be used in products such as concrete and drywall.

No EPA coal ash hearings are scheduled to take place in Ohio despite the state’s status as the sixth largest producer of coal ash in the U.S. The Sierra Club claims that over 6.9 million tons of coal ash are produced every year in Ohio.

Regulation of coal ash varies from state to state, but the substance has no federal oversight, Reitman said.

Issues with coal ash disposal methods gained attention in December 2008 when more than one billion gallons of coal ash sludge leaked from a retainer pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant near Knoxville, Tenn.

The issue came back into the spotlight with a recent report by several activist groups including the Sierra Club, Environmental Earth Justice and Earthjustice. The report showed water contamination problems at 39 coal ash disposal sites in 21 states.

That report, which Reitman said used information that was “already on the books,” prompted the EPA to hold its series of public hearings.

The official hearing for U.S. EPA Region 5, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, was held in Chicago because the city is at the region’s center, said EPA Media Relations Officer Karen Thompson.

The EPA is considering two options for dealing with coal ash. The options are known as Subtitle C and Subtitle D. The former would create enforceable federal regulations on disposing coal ash while the latter would leave that up to the states.

Area residents who attended the local hearing said coal ash causes health problems in their communities.

Meigs County resident Elisa Young said she deals with the negative effects of coal ash regularly. She said it is dumped on the streets near her home. Young said the ash contains hazardous metals such as arsenic and molybdenum, a word she has difficulty pronouncing. She said the ash sometimes ends up in the soil of her vegetable garden.

“I can’t even say that one, but I’m eating it,” Young said.

Hannah Fulton, an OU junior studying anthropology, knew very little of the issue before the meeting. She said she found it “mind blowing” that the EPA knew about the possible dangers of coal ash but was doing nothing to regulate it.

“It opened my eyes to a lot,” she said.

The EPA will accept public testimony and input until Nov. 19. The remaining EPA coal ash hearings will take place in Pittsburgh on Sept. 21 and Louisville, Ky. on Sept. 28.

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