Knoxville News Sentinel: Editorial: EPA's reversal on coal ash hearing is welcome

Posted on September 29, 2010

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made the correct, if belated, call to hold a hearing on pending coal ash regulations in East Tennessee.

The agency is holding a series of public hearings across the country to help determine how to regulate the coal combustion waste.

For some reason, the EPA did not originally schedule a hearing in East Tennessee, even though the country's largest coal ash spill occurred in Roane County in December 2008. The EPA is overseeing the cleanup of the spill, which dumped 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge into the Emory River and surrounding countryside when a retention facility at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured.

The EPA will hold a 12-hour hearing on Oct. 27 at the Marriott in downtown Knoxville.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who serves on the committee that oversees TVA, announced the Knoxville hearing earlier this month.

"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.

He was right on target. After all, it was the Kingston ash spill, the largest of its type in American history, that prompted EPA to dust off the proposed regulations and put them into the regulatory pipeline earlier this year.

The EPA is considering two options for the regulation of coal ash, which contains metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium. One option would regulate ash and slag as hazardous waste, while the second would regulate ash more like household garbage.

The hazardous-waste regulatory regime is preferable because it would ban ponds like the one that failed at the Kingston plant. The EPA also would enforce the installation of liners, groundwater monitoring systems and other safeguards.

The less stringent alternative would allow the continued use of ponds as long as they are lined and contain other safety features. States wouldn't have to adopt the standard, however, and the only way to enforce the regulations would be through citizen lawsuits.

The hazardous-waste option would cost utilities an estimated $1.5 billion per year, about $900 million more than the less stringent alternative. As might be expected, industry groups prefer the less expensive measure. The power industry, though, has proved over the years it can keep rates at a reasonable level while meeting tougher environmental standards.

East Tennesseans - and in particular those from Roane County directly affected by the Kingston spill - should make their opinions known to the EPA. The hearing will be the last of those hosted by the agency.

A coalition of environmental groups held a "People's Hearing" on Sept. 2 at Roane State Community College in Harriman, and those comments will be passed on to the EPA.

Still, East Tennesseans who want their voices heard should sign up to speak at the official EPA hearing. A disaster like the Kingston spill should never happen again.