Union, environmental activists clash inside, outside Pittsburgh EPA coal regulation hearings

Union miners and others opposed to stricter pollution rules for coal-burning power plants proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency clashed inside and outside the city's federal building on the first of two days of public hearings on the new regulations.

About 5,000 union members, led by the United Mine Workers of America, on Thursday marched to the William S. Moorhead Federal Building chanting, "Hey, hey, EPA! Don't take our jobs away!"

A few members of a Pittsburgh-based union, Boilermakers Local 154, traded shouts and insults with some 300 environmental activists who stood on a nearby street corner as the march ended. "You're sending our jobs to China! Use your heads!" one union member shouted.

Fourteen UMW members, including international president Cecil Roberts, were arrested for sitting on the federal building's steps. Union members cheered as police gently led them away in plastic wrist loops. They were to be cited and released for blocking a sidewalk, said mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty.

Many environmentalists generally favor the new regulations, which the EPA says will cut 30 percent of carbon emissions from power plants by the year 2030. Still, some environmentalists don't believe the regulations go far enough or will have unintended consequences, such as requiring more nuclear power to supply the nation's electrical grid.

Supporters of the regulations say they're a necessary first step in weaning the nation from coal entirely, including Patricia DeMarco, a visiting researcher at Carnegie Mellon University's Green Sciences Institute.

"A change from an energy system that's been entrenched for 200 years seems a daunting task," DeMarco said as the hearing's first witness.

The EPA has argued that the regulations won't harm the economy.

But the coal miners believe the regulations will close coal-burning plants, costing jobs and making the nation's power grid less reliable. Both sides invoked the elderly, poor and children as potential victims.

Environmentalists say those groups are disproportionately affected by weather disasters, which they say are spawned by pollution-fueled climate change. The coal industry says those groups will suffer the most if jobs are lost, electricity prices skyrocket or the power grid becomes unreliable, leading to brownouts during extremely cold or hot weather.

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection opposes the regulations.

The EPA contends the regulations will give states flexibility to develop their own plans to cut carbon pollution. But Vince Brisini, a DEP deputy secretary, said the regulations require such large cuts in coal-fueled power plants that states have little wiggle room.

"To get this (pollution) reduction it's 'Don't burn coal,'" Brisini said after the hearing. "That's what this is all about."

The regulations encourage states to convert coal-burning plants to natural gas, draw more electricity from nuclear power plants and do more to use renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. But Brisini said the DEP doesn't have the power to regulate where Pennsylvania gets its power — only to limit how much pollution results from the methods used to produce it.

Charles McCollester, an activist who stood alone — literally — as the union workers marched past, believes both sides are wrong.

The sign he held summed up his position: "As long as blue union/jobs are pitted against green earth/health we are doomed!"