Johnson City Press: Editorial: Tennesseans finally given a say in coal ash hearings

Posted on September 13, 2010

   An environmental advocacy group released a report last week that claims emissions from coal-fired power plants are to blame for about 500 deaths per year in Tennessee. 

   The Clean Air Task Force says that while new regulations have helped to cut harmful emissions in half since 2004, Tennessee still ranks eighth among states in per capita mortality risk from pollutants released by coal plants.

   West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky lead in mortality risk while California, a state with very few coal-fired energy-producing plants, ranks near the bottom for such deaths. 

   Officials with the TVA say they have worked hard to meet stricter clean air standards at its 11 coal-fired plants. Last month, the Knoxville-based public utility announced it would soon shut down some coal burners at its John Sevier Fossil Fuel Plant in Rogersville in an effort to move to cleaner energy production. That news is certainly a breath of fresh air to residents in our region.

   There is, however, another environmental threat from coal-fired plants that still troubles some East Tennesseans — the   disposal of fly ash from coal-fired plants. 

   This issue came to light in late 2008 when a massive coal ash spill in Kingston resulted in arsenic levels in the Emory River rising to more than 100 times the acceptable amount. The Environmental Protection Agency is now considering measures to regulate coal ash as a hazardous material. The EPA is holding public hearings in a number of states to hear what residents there think of its plans.    Surprisingly, Tennessee — the site of the one of the largest and costliest coal ash spills in U.S. history — was not on the list of states slated for a public hearing. After some prodding by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the EPA corrected that mistake last week by announcing plans to hold a hearing in Knoxville next month.

   That makes sense. As Alexander noted in a recent story by the Associated Press, the federal government would never think of holding hearings on the impact of Hurricane Katrina without including comments from residents of New Orleans.