By Kelly Kuhn

There’s nothing more exciting than sitting in a room filled with like-minded people and collectively cheering when your “side” stands up to speak.  It’s like being at a basketball or football game and cheering when your team scores a goal.  This time, however, your team is “cheering” for strong public health safeguards and the opposing team is arguing why safeguards aren’t necessary.  The Chicago and Louisville public hearings hosted by the U.S. EPA to discuss the regulation of coal combustion waste have had this competitive feel.

The Chicago public hearing took place on September 16th, while the Louisville hearing followed on September 28th.  Initially, the EPA did not schedule a hearing in the Louisville area.  HEC was one of nine Indiana groups who signed onto a petition requesting the Louisville hearing, and one of twenty-two groups in the Ohio River Valley who petitioned for this location in the heart of coal country.  Both locations are central to areas where citizens have been poisoned by coal ash waste.

Coal ash is a very well hidden and very dirty secret in Indiana.  Our coal-fired power plants produce over 9.5 millions tons of coal ash every year.  This makes us the 3rd highest producing state in the country.  Indiana also stores the most coal ash of any state, with over 2.2 million tons being kept in surface ponds.  These aren’t exactly facts for Hoosiers to be proud of.

Besides being an eyesore, the 53 surface ponds in Indiana hold thousands of tons of coal ash mixed with water, which allows the heavy metals and minerals—lead, mercury, arsenic, boron, beryllium, selenium—to leach into our surface and groundwater.  Several sites in our state have been identified as having contaminated drinking water or having a very real threat of contaminated drinking water in the non-too-distant future.

Early this summer, the EPA published a draft rule, asking citizens to choose between two options for regulating coal ash waste nationwide.  Subtitle C, the more stringent option, will classify coal ash waste as a hazardous waste and allow the federal government to ensure that states are handling the waste in a uniform manner that protects public health.  It also includes a special exemption for beneficial use, which has typically meant that coal ash is used in making concrete, put on soil as an “amendment,” and/or spread on roads in the winter for skid control, among other uses.  HEC, along with many other environmental groups, supports only use in encapsulated forms such as concrete.  This ensures that the coal ash will not get out into our environment.

Subtitle D is the other option that the EPA is asking the public to weigh in on.  This option keeps business as usual, with coal ash waste being deemed solid waste, just like our household trash.  The states can choose to adopt the protective guidelines from the EPA, but are not required to do so.  Indiana is only one of the states that has proven that business as usual just isn’t enough.  We have citizens near Lake Michigan, in southeast Indiana, and in southwest Indiana who have had to live with the horror of having unsafe drinking water.  Most of us don’t think twice about the safety of the water from our faucets.  Drinking water is something that just should be safe.  Something that is so vital to our lives should not be poisoned simply because utility companies are not required to properly dispose of the mess that they create.

At the public meetings in Chicago and Louisville, many people turned out to support their “team.”  In the packed rooms, representatives from industry sat next to citizens who had a tragic personal story to tell.  It was hard to sit and listen to industry folks speak and say that coal ash “isn’t toxic.”  Some claimed that they would put it on their vegetable gardens.  They were followed by citizens who stood up and said that they have had it on their vegetable gardens and in their drinking water, without their knowledge or choosing.  Now they fight rare diseases, drink discolored, unhealthy water, and wonder about the health of their families in the future.

These stories make it clear that each of us has a reason to submit a comment during the EPA comment period.  These stories make it clear that Subtitle C is the only option if we are going to clean up the coal ash mess and protect the health of fellow Hoosiers and citizens nationwide.  HEC fights for the “team” that protects public health and allows people to have safe drinking water, no matter where they live.  Please take a minute to read through the information on our coal ash web page and submit a comment to the EPA before November 19th.

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