EPA talks on pollution limits trigger protests, arrests Downtown

| Thursday, July 31, 2014, 10:48 a.m.

The national debate over regulating carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants reached its loudest and most contentious point on Thursday at a Downtown corner.

During a lunchtime break from testimony on proposed federal rules, hundreds of protesters fresh from a clean-air rally with Mayor Bill Peduto confronted thousands of union workers marching through what Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea told them is a “union city.”

The collision of opinions outside the William S. Moorhead Federal Building was more boisterous and tense than what Environmental Protection Agency workers heard inside during 11 hours of testimony that will continue on Friday.

Inside, 200 people spoke of balancing job and energy concerns with stopping climate change.

On Liberty Avenue just after noon, shouts of “Move to China!” from union marchers in green camo shirts met responses of “No planet, no jobs!” from sign-waving environmentalists.

“It's really emotional because I understand the fear they have (about their jobs),” said Gretchen Dahlkemper-Alfonso, 30, of Philadelphia, who is national field manager for the Moms Clean Air Force and daughter of former U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Erie.

“But all I want to do is protect my children,” she said. “It's emotional for me. I'm no stranger of going to the emergency room with my daughter on days when the air quality is bad.”

The 45-minute confrontation ended peacefully despite the arrests of 14 union organizers, including United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts for obstruction.

Both sides pledged to keep pushing their opinions as the EPA takes more comments and finalizes its plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants nationwide by 30 percent over the next 16 years.

“There are many good people who have bought into these regulations,” said Edwin D. Hill, international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “Many of them have the best intentions. But if somebody is going to take our jobs and health care and pensions and harm our families, it doesn't matter to me what their intentions are; we're going to fight back.”

As the last of four cities to host hearings on what the EPA calls its Clean Power Plan, Pittsburgh drew politicians, clergy, activists and professors from much of the country.

Opponents say the Obama administration is overreaching, unfairly targeting coal-fired plants and prompting price spikes and job losses.

“Forcing through regulations of this magnitude in such a short time frame will limit the ability of states and stakeholders to thoughtfully prepare for the drastic changes that this rule will cause,” said Mike Butler, mid-Atlantic executive director for the Houston-based Consumer Energy Alliance.

Supporters, many from environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, praised the EPA for targeting coal-fired plants that cause the worst pollution while asking regulators to act more strongly to reduce climate change tied to greenhouse gases.

“I want to live in a world where people pay attention to what's going on on the planet,” said Peter Bixler, 15, of Philadelphia, among the youngest to testify. He spoke about his asthma.

At least three speakers brought their children to the table during testimony, including Dennis Simmers of Cambria County. He spoke in support of power plants that burn coal waste, such as those built near his home 20 years ago.

“I'm delighted these waste piles are gone, and my children have no recollection of them,” Simmers said.

Many supporters started their testimony with praise of a “good first step,” followed by criticism that the agency should go further. Some complained that replacing coal with natural gas and nuclear power won't fix the problem.

“They replace one dirty fuel with many others,” said the Rev. Leah Schade of Lewisburg, whose shirt patch asked, “Where Would Jesus Frack?”

Three EPA administrators in each room often bore the brunt of complaints.

“These decisions should be made by elected officials,” said Vince Brisini, a deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Gov. Tom Corbett and his administration have sided with industry groups that say the rules would harm the coal industry that fuels 40 percent of power plants.

Many speakers from West Virginia, the No. 2 coal producer in the United States, complained that the hearings took place in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Denver and Washington instead of there.

“The White House and EPA chose to snub West Virginia,” said that state's Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate. “Work with us, not against us.”

The hearings will continue from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. Speaking slots are booked with another 200 people signed up to testify, but the EPA will accept written comments until October.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com. Staff writers Melissa Daniels, Bobby Kerlik and Natasha Lindstrom contributed to this report.

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