Monday, July 19, 2010

EPA's coming to visit the Q.C.

Posted By on Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 3:38 PM

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is gearing up for several public hearings on coal ash, which will be held across the continental United States. One of those hearings, actually a series of four hearings in one day, will be held right here in the Queen City on Sept. 14. You can sign up to speak at the meetings here.

So, what does the EPA want to talk about? Whether or not they should classify coal ash as hazardous waste. This is something they've been attempting to do for more than 30 years, but they keep getting stumbled up by coal and waste management lobbyists. And, let's face it, until the huge coal ash disaster in Tennessee a year and a half ago, not too many people were aware of coal ash or the hazards it represents.

Keep in mind, there are no — nada, zip, not a one — federal regulations governing coal ash. The states are in charge of overseeing the thousands of coal ash ponds in our country, which means regulations vary state to state. Our state, fortunately, does a better job than most, though the case can be made that our legislators aren't doing nearly enough to protect us from this toxic sludge.

What is coal ash, anyway? Most simply, it's what's left over after coal is burned to create the steam that powers the turbines that create the electricity you and I can't live without. It's a fine dust that looks a lot like black baby power. Water is added to the dust to keep it from floating out of the coal plants' smoke stacks. The water turns the ash into a heavy sludge that's pumped into holding ponds which are held in place by earthen dams.

What coal ash consists of varies greatly, and depends on what was in the coal to begin with. In some cases, coal ash can be highly radioactive. In fact, in 2007, a full year before the disaster in Tennessee, Scientific American published an article with evidence that coal as is more radioactive than nuclear waste.

More commonly, however, you'll hear people talk about the arsenic in coal ash. Other potential ingredients read like the periodic table: mercury, chromium, nickel, sulfur, lead ... and the list goes on. That raises a good question for the EPA — what is in the coal ash stored closest to Charlotte?

The EPA is only holding hearings in five states— ours, of course, as well as Virginia, Colorado, Texas and Illinois.

But, do you notice anything missing from that list? How about Tennessee, where the coal ash disaster occurred? Or maybe Pennsylvania and Kentucky, where other massive, but apparently less newsworthy, coal ash spills occurred. What about West Virginia, a state where tons of coal are excavated daily? And, why not hold hearings in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia? Those are the states with the most coal ash on hand. And, why did they skip Alabama (a.k.a. America's toxic waste dump), where the coal ash from the Tennessee disaster is being hauled?

Now, I'm not saying the hearings shouldn't be here. North Carolina has more — 12 — unlined, high-hazard coal ash ponds than any other state, four of which are near Charlotte. Two of those are a mere dozen miles from the center of Uptown. They sit on the edge of our main drinking water source, right upstream from where Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities sucks the water out, water that eventually pours from the faucets in your home.

With that in mind, we definitely deserve to have the hearings here — and I hope you'll attend.

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