Note: This is a copy of testimony given July 29 in Atlanta by Oak Ridge resident Leslie Agron, a write-in candidate in the Democratic primary for Tennessee House of Representatives on Thursday.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen of the EPA. Thank you for taking my testimony.
My name is Leslie Agron. I am from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. As the son of a Manhattan Project scientist, I was born and raised there. I grew up within walking distance of Appalachia.
I am currently a candidate for the Tennessee state legislature. I have previously served on Oak Ridge’s Environmental Quality Advisory Board. I hold an Executive MBA from The Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. Given that credential, the thrust of my remarks will be about business and business climate.
I hold that, contrary to industry remarks that coal makes jobs, coal is not good business. To be clear, in a historical sense, coal was very important to the development of America in the 19th and 20th centuries. During those historical times, coal very much enhanced the business climate of our country by supplying affordable energy when no other source of energy was available.
In more recent times, however, even with the periodic improvements which have been made, continuing coal industry practices have led to conditions which tend to diminish the capacity for business in its vicinity.
Specifically, Tennessee’s largest industry is agriculture. The quality of our water has significant bearing on both the success of that and the overall health of the people of Tennessee. Mountain top mining techniques, although somewhat modified from some of the bad practices in the past, still channel runoff into our watershed as a normal consequence of disturbing the top layers to reach the seams of coal. While the coal industry will point to their changes in practices—these only followed a long public outcry, revised regulations, and enforcement measures—and then only brought compliance to the letter of the law.
The district I seek to represent is just a few miles from TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant. As you no doubt recall, in 2008 that was the scene of tragic accident which caused a billion gallon spill of its stored coal ash slurry into the Clinch River, a tributary of the Tennessee River.
This massive environmental discharge made the Exxon Valdez incident seem small by comparison. Storage requirements have been revised subsequently, and the public relations message is that this will not recur, but beforehand they would have told us the ash was stored safely—according to industry practices.
The coal power industry would also tell us that the clean up process in the vicinity has been completed. This should not be taken to mean, however, that all of the spilled ash has been removed from the environment and returned to contained storage. That is as impossible as returning an egg, once broken, to it’s former shell.
Instead, the cleanup process has reached its planned end state, where additional clean up efforts would tend to disturb and release deposited coal ash more than to remove the toxic material from the environment. It is eerily haunting to walk that vicinity years later and be able to literally smell the tragedy which occurred there.
Tennessee’s third largest industry, and rapidly growing, is tourism. The district I seek to represent borders on I-75—the nation’s busiest interstate highway. There are several proposals to greatly increase attractions and facilities for visitors in our area in the near future.
I shudder to remember as a boy watching strip mining scars spread across our beloved mountains. The memory of that ugliness lasts a lifetime. Such practices are simply not compatible with the larger visitor-based economy Tennessee is capable of enjoying.
Again, the coal industry would tell us these mountains have been restored. Restored…
When they use this word they do not mean quite what we mean when most of us use the word. I have a friend who restores antique cars as a hobby. When he is done, the cars are in mint condition.
What is meant by restored, in this case, is that the holes have been filled in, and there is something green growing on top. Where there was once a vibrant ecosystem, there is now all the vitality of a vacant lot. Generations will pass before nature is able to return these mountain tops to anything resembling the sort of complex ecosystem which once flourished there.
So, have I marched you through a whiney recount of the past ills of coal industry practices—or have I distinguished a pattern of behavior which can accurately predict their future performance? I submit: the latter. They have not played well with others in the past, and they are here this week seeking to continue that streak. Public outcry will be required yet again to overrule their intentions and move this country toward a future of affordable and sustainable energy practices.
With the world-leading green energy research coming from Oak Ridge National Laboratory—another plug for my area—our nation can prosper from rolling out to the world the technologies which will make this vision easily affordable and obtainable.
Coal is obsolete. We need to get over it. Thank you so much for your kind attention.