June 19, 2008

Coal Ash Ruling Won’t Deter Opponents

By Shawna Morrison, The Roanoke Times, Va.

Jun. 19--PEARISBURG -- A special grand jury appointed to investigate a coal ash dump site in Narrows announced Wednesday that it found the site is not a public nuisance.

The jury foreman read the seven-member group's 112-page report aloud in Giles County Circuit Court at a brief hearing Wednesday morning. When he was finished, Circuit Court Judge Colin Gibb said, "The court is of the opinion that that concludes the matter."

But opponents of the project say they plan to continue fighting it.

"We're not ready to give up yet," said Teresa Melvin, who lives next to the Cumberland Park dump site.

The plan is to put 254,000 cubic yards of coal ash from the Appalachian Power Co. plant in Glen Lyn on property beside the New River.

The Giles County Partnership for Excellence, a nonprofit formed for educational enrichment in the county, plans to use the ash as fill material. The ash would cover more than 7 acres about 30 feet deep. That would raise the riverbank to the level of U.S. 460, creating a potential building site for a job-creating business at the edge of Narrows.

The land is zoned for industrial use. The partnership directors say they plan to sell that land and give the proceeds to the county school system to benefit vocational education.

In January, five members of the Concerned Citizens of Giles County, who oppose the project, asked Gibb to empanel a grand jury to investigate whether the plan constituted a public nuisance.

Gibb agreed to put jurors to work on the question once coal ash started being dumped. That happened in April, and the grand jury convened April 30. It has met every Tuesday morning, Gibb said.

According to its report, the jury studied reports provided by the Giles County Zoning Administrator "that clearly indicated that the Cumberland Park project ... is following the requirements as set forth by the DEQ [Virginia Department of Environmental Quality], and furthermore, the project has been inspected approximately every two weeks since the project was begun."

The jury found that "no environmental damage had been done and all regulations have been followed," the report says.

"We were very pleased that the grand jury reached the verdict that they did," said Paul Thomson, a lawyer for the partnership. "The purpose of the grand jury is to reflect the conscience of the community, and this community has spoken."

The grand jury heard from 10 witnesses, including witnesses the report says were suggested both by the partnership and the concerned residents.

None of the petitioners who filed suit in the case was interviewed, said their lawyer, John Robertson.

Robertson said he respects the grand jury's work but disagrees with its decision.

"This decision has not dampened the desire to prevent hazardous material from being dumped in Cumberland Park," he said.

"We're exploring our other options," Melvin said. She said she and the other opponents are concerned about potential toxins from the ash leaching into the river.

"When they contaminate the river it's killing our county," she said. "We feel we need to do what we can to keep that river safe."


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