One public hearing, one chance, one time in the District of Columbia is what the American people got regarding a major proposal to effectively overturn an Obama administration rule on coal ash that would result in significantly looser regulations regarding the disposal of the dangerous substances and the dewatering of coal ash ponds into public waters.

That hearing with the Environmental Protection Agency occurred Tuesday, and Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn and Dink NeSmith, owner and publisher of the Jesup Press-Sentinel, made the trip to Washington to have their voices heard on the proposal.

The EPA filed a report in November 2017 with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for D.C. regarding “reconsideration” of the 2015 rule, which at the time instituted stricter regulations for coal ash disposal. The move came after coal-related industry interests pushed for reconsideration.

As industry attorney Douglas Green argued before the court in November, it is their position that the EPA, through the 2015 rule, prevents coal ash pond owners and operators from “considering cost and convenience to determine” qualification for an alternative pond closure provision, which was “arbitrary and capricious.” He also said the EPA exceeded its statutory authority in regulating coal ash impoundments.

Most people who spoke Tuesday said it is a matter of health and safety versus short-term industry savings.

“If government is working the way it’s supposed to, you have all these hundreds of comments from all of these people, from Girl Scouts to scientists to people who love Mother Earth to riverkeepers, etc., you will see the vast majority — in fact, I stepped out of the room a few times, so I can’t say for sure — but I didn’t hear anybody saying, ‘Oh yes, let’s roll back the rule, let’s have less safe storage of coal ash. Let’s protect our communities less. Let’s make sure our children aren’t protected,’” Hilburn said.

She continued, “I didn’t hear any comments to that effect. So, if the government was working the way it should, the people, again, coming from around the nation, from all ages and types, stated frankly that they didn’t want this rollback. That they wanted to continue to move forward in the safe disposal of coal ash.”

In her remarks to the EPA, she reiterated it is the EPA’s job to do what is in the agency’s name — environmental protection.

“Why would our protection agency become our pollution agency,” Hilburn said. “Because industry is the biggest, meanest slobbering dog in this fight? Because they have more money than all the taxpayers combined? That is not the mandate of the EPA.

“It is long overdue for industry to stop the transfer of cost-savings onto the health and well-being of our citizens and waterways. It is a requirement that the Environmental Protection Agency protect our environment, our health, our safety.”

NeSmith said that if the 2015 rule gets repealed, it will be small towns and rural areas that feel the brunt of the hit, as shown by the Broadhurst Landfill battle and, in Parrish, Ala., what has become known as the notorious “poop train,” which was allowed to park by the town for months.

“There is no nice way to say it,” NeSmith said. “If you throw out today’s protective coal ash guidelines, communities such as Jesup will become environmental prostitutes with the big-moneyed polluters serving as it’s-all-about-the-money pimps. Your action or inaction makes us a David up against a massive army of Goliaths. That’s why we depend on you — the EPA. Americans need you to stand up for our environmental safety.”

The Trump administration maintains repealing the 2015 rule will save utilities around $100 million a year and allow states to better structure their own enforcement measures.

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