As I have mentioned on this blog before, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently holding public hearings at sites around the country to hear your input on draft regulations for the disposal of toxic coal ash. This week’s blog post comes from Sierra Student Coalition Apprentice Margaret Hoerath, who writes about an activist who travelled to the coal ash hearing in Virginia earlier this week.

“This is a bureaucratic mini-Katrina because FEMA doesn’t know what’s going on here,” said James McGrath, a citizen from Giles County in Southwest Virginia, where a coal ash disposal site is located.

Coal ash is the toxic byproduct left over after burning coal and contains elevated levels of dangerous poisons such as mercury, lead, and arsenic. The Cumberland Park Project, essentially a coal ash disposal site dressed up as a real estate development project, is prompting concerns from local citizens like McGrath.

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There have been dozens of documented cases where coal ash has contaminated surface water or groundwater in at least 23 states, according to a 2007 EPA study. There are some places near coal ash disposal sites that have water with levels of heavy metals tens and even hundreds of times above federal drinking water standards (U.S. EPA, Coal Combustion Waste Damage Case Assessments, July 9, 2007). McGrath points out that the disposal site is in a 100 year floodplain and is “unlined,” which allows toxins from the coal ash to leak into the area’s groundwater and potentially into someone’s drinking water downriver.

McGrath is particularly concerned about the lack of public participation in the approval process for the project, and the fact that the county administration dodged the proper Federal Emergency Management Administration permitting process by misrepresenting the materials to be used at the site on their application. The administration told FEMA that they were using dirt fill materials instead of specifying that that they were using toxic coal ash from American Electric Power. By misrepresenting the materials to be used on their application, the Cumberland Park Project was able to circumvent the local public hearing process that should have been required.

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For McGrath, a 60 year old veteran who was with the 1st marine division in Vietnam, this process violates his democratic values. McGrath explains that it took him two years and eleven months to get a grip on the ins and outs of the permitting process and to understand all the players and beneficiaries in the project.

“If it was Chinese, I could go to the Mandarin opera and understand it,” McGrath explained. “It’s a labyrinth. [This permitting process is] intentionally done this way to confuse people.”

McGrath explained that it is important to understand the permitting process in order to understand the strategies used to get Cumberland Park approved. McGrath has worked on this issue by asking the key players tough questions and by shedding light on all the decision makers involved. He needed to do a lot of digging to find the information he needed to inform others. He became well-versed in the proposed project and was a major source of information for Concerned Citizens of Giles County, which is the group that was formed directly in response to the Cumberland Park Project. McGrath calls himself a long-time environmental activist and found out about this project through involvement in another local environmental group.

“We need more citizens to get involved in activism,” McGrath said. He said that he wishes young people would take more of a role in their government.

McGrath calls many of the moves that the county and AEP used to usher the project in as “slick.” By providing incorrect information on their FEMA developmental permit application, the county avoided having public hearings and prevented local residents from taking a stand on the project. Despite the fact that many coal ash ponds and disposal sites have been shown to leak over time, the Cumberland Park project is allowed to be built in a floodplain and without a composite liner. Since the project is being touted as a development project where future businesses and buildings could be built, bringing jobs to the area, it is termed a “beneficial use” project and slips under the radar.

Industry lobbyists have aimed to limit public participation and they accomplished this by ensuring that a “beneficial use” clause was part of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality permitting process. The “beneficial use” clause was part of the reason that Giles County did not have to hold any public hearings.

“The lobbyists are intentionally influencing legislation to eliminate public participation,” McGrath says.

Through public participation and pressuring public officials back home, McGrath has shed light on the dark side of the project in an effort to create change. McGrath says working on this issue was like a full time job. After driving five hours from Southwest Virginia to testify at the Washington DC Environmental Protection Agency coal ash hearing on August. 30th, McGrath now plans to stop working on the issue. He wants to let the issue take a life of its own and devote more time to his woodworking jobs, tending his property and spending time with his family.

“I’m going to go back to being a grandparent,” he said. “I haven’t seen one of my grandchildren for a third of their life.”

The Washington DC hearing McGrath attended was the first of seven hearings nationwide that are being held to evaluate regulations regarding the disposal of coal ash. See for more information and to find out how you can tell the EPA what you think.