Pitt students testify at EPA hearings downtown

By Ilya Yashin / Staff Writer

The second and final day of federal hearings about the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan concluded Downtown on Friday.

The CPP, announced June 2,includes plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions from 1,000 coal-fired power plants by 30 percent according to the EPA website.

According to the website, the EPA will accept comment on the proposal for 120 days after publication in the Federal Register. Four public hearings were held across the country last week, including three locations other than Pittsburgh: Denver, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

On Thursday, the first day of the Pittsburgh hearings, press conferences, rallies and protest marches by both the pro- and anti-regulations groups took place.

Based on the input from the public hearings, the EPA will finalize standards next June following the schedule laid out in the June 2013 Presidential Memorandum.

Kevin Lusky, a 2013 Pitt political science graduate who is now an organizer at PennEnvironment, an environmental advocacy organization, was at the protests on Thursday supporting the CPP. Between 3,000 and 6,000 opponents and about 1,000 supporters were there, he said.

The United Mine Workers of America, the largest group among CPPopponents, rallied at the David Lawrence Convention Centeron Thursday. The proponents — including about 20 separate, smaller environmental groups — convened at the August Wilson Center downtown.

The UMWA marched down Wood and Smithfield streets and Liberty Avenue, Lusky said. Although there were some minor, mostly verbal, confrontations between members of the opposing sides, the protests were peaceful overall.

EPA press secretary Liz Purchia said the United States has no limit on the emission of the harmful carbon dioxide by power plants like it does for many other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and mercury.

“We have a moral imperative to act and to take action to invest in new alternatives, to spur innovation in energy efficiency, to support renewable energy,” Purchia said. “That’s what this plan is all about.”

The EPA estimated that by 2030, CPP will help avoid thousands of asthma attacks, hospital admissions and premature deaths and will have annual public health and climate benefits worth $55-93 billion while costing only $7.3-8.8 billion per year. 

According to the EPA’s release, the CPP will be implemented through “a state-federal partnership under which states identify a path forward using either current or new electricity production and pollution control policies to meet the goals of the proposed program.

The CPP “provides guidelines for states to develop plans to meet state-specific goals to reduce carbon pollution and gives them the flexibility to design a program that makes the most sense for their unique situation,” according to the release.

The release said that states can “choose the right mix of generation using diverse fuels, energy efficiency and demand-side management to meet the goals and their own needs. It allows them to work alone to develop individual plans or to work together with other states to develop multi-state plans.”

Purchia said it will be up to each state to devise the means to meet the requirements.

About 180 concerned citizens, miners, professors and government officials spoke on Friday, and some had traveled from as far as Florida and Montana. Each person had five minutes to present his or her testimony to the panel. 

Those opposing the CPP commonly cited the unemployment, loss of retirement benefits for coal workers and the destruction of communities that revolve around coal mining that the measures will allegedly cause. Carol Bienkoski, a UMWA member and retired coal miner, cited community concerns in her testimony.

“This is as much about family and community as it is about burning coal,” Bienkoski said.

Others questioned the CPP’s benefits in light of its negative consequences.

Ken Schilling, general manager and CEO of Washington Electric Cooperative, said that CPP will cause electric bills to rise $40-50 per month because alternative energy sources are currently more expensive and will reduce global warming by only 0.018 degrees by 2100.

The proponents at Friday’s final hearing outnumbered the opponents by more than three to one, according to a list of registered speakers that included their affiliations.

Some Pitt students also expressed their support for CPP.

Nick Goodfellow, senior communication and urban studies major at Pitt and member of the student environmental group Free the Planet, said the CPP is the most significant step the EPA has ever attempted, but that it could be even stronger.

In his testimony Goodfellow said both sides of the debate want the same thing: stable jobs and a bright future.

“What nobody is saying is that we want you to stop powering the nation,” Goodfellow said to UMWA members, which made up than half of his audience. “You obviously take great pride in your service to the nation, but what would it be like to power the nation with healthy jobs in the renewable energy industry?”

Matthew Nezbeth, a senior Pitt mechanical engineering major, directly addressed the miners’ concerns in his testimony. The solar energy industry creates jobs 10 times faster than all other sectors of the U.S. economy, he said, and can thus take care of the laid-off miners. He added that solar energy is fast approaching cost parity with coal.

“Other people can talk about what climate change is going to do or whether it’s not real, but I want to focus on persuading people who are against [CPP] right now because of job issues,” Nezbeth said.

Claire Matway, an junior urban studies major at Pitt and Free the Planet’s co-president, said in her testimony that she was worried about CPP’s implementation and urged the EPA to hold industries accountable.

She said that CPP is an imperfect solution to a complex problem and is only one of the many steps away from the energy system that relies on coal and thereby ignores long-term consequences in favor of short-term ones.

“With the [CPP’s] implementation, there will be growing pain in the industry, there will be shifts and adjustments and sometimes communities have to reinvent themselves and that has happened all the time,” Matway said. “I’m talking about the necessary cost of progress. Not everybody will benefit from the regulations [now], but in the long run everybody will.”