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This opinion piece was written for Earthjustice and is reprinted here with permission.

One grandmother from Virginia called on the EPA to "do the right thing ... step up."

Gefen Kabik, 14, of Potomoc, Md., asked, "Since when has money become more important than people?" 

And Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said, "There are a lot of people who can't afford to be in the room today who are depending on you to make the right choice."

Today, at the first of seven Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) public hearings on coal ash, the agency had to work through lunch to accommodate the swell of people giving testimony — an estimated 200 people. The hearing was to discuss one of two options the EPA is considering on coal ash. One option would regulate coal ash as a toxic substance, while the other — supported by power companies and other polluters — would do nothing to monitor and regulate the threats from coal ash.

Among the first to testify was a representative of industry whose company uses coal ash to make concrete. He called on the EPA to choose the option that wouldn't regulate coal ash as a toxic pollutant, falsely claiming that there is "no new scientific basis to warrant it being regulated." As this and other research shows, that is clearly a baseless statement.

A representative of the American Forest and Paper Association said several mills co-manage coal ash sites. She discouraged regulating coal ash, explaining that an "onerous hazardous waste" label for coal ash was not necessary.

Several giving testimony urged the EPA to recognize the burden that poor, minority communities shoulder as a result of living near these sites. Among them was Michael Jackson, an attorney from Perry County in Alabama. He said residents there have been exposed to 1 million tons of coal ash sent there after the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill in December 2008. Not only are poor communities living near these sites, they often have access to poor health facilities and services, making their exposure to the lead, cadmium, mercury and other toxic substances in coal ash even more dangerous.

"They pick some of the poorest areas" to dump coal ash, he said.

John Wathen of Tuscaloosa, Ala., is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Citizens Coal Council. Wearing a shirt bearing the words "Clean Coal is a Lie" he described how he was among one of the first to come in contact with the coal ash that spilled into the Kingston River in Tennessee. While canoeing in the river, he took a sample of the coal ash, which was found to contain a high level of arsenic. He called industry "environmental criminals" and urged the EPA to pass strong safeguards.

"Otherwise you're nothing more than environmental criminals yourselves," he said.

The EPA will hold additional hearings in:

  • Denver, Colo., on Sept. 2
  • Dallas, Texas, on Sept. 8
  • Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 14
  • Chicago, Ill., on Sept. 16
  • Pittsburgh, Pa., on Sept. 21
  • Louisville, Ky, on Sept. 28