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EPA talks on pollution limits trigger protests, arrests Downtown

Melissa Daniels, Bobby Kerlik and Natasha Lindstrom | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Pittsburgh police arrested 14 unionized coal workers Downtown on Thursday afternoon, as hundreds of protestors sounded off about proposed Environmental Protection Agency pollution regulations being discussed in the William S. Moorhead Federal Building.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts was among those arrested for trespassing, UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said.

Two days of Pittsburgh hearings on a federal proposal to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants began Thursday morning. Several hundred people on both sides of the debate filled the federal building to plead their case to EPA administrators. The hearing began quietly with speeches from advocates on both sides, while demonstrators nearby rallied in the streets.

Protestors from both sides traded chants and angry shouts around 12:30 p.m. when the United Mine Workers of America walked past the August Wilson Center on Liberty Avenue.

Shouts of “shut your lights off then,” and “move to China” and “We are union” from the UMWA clashed with “we want clean air” and “no planet, no jobs” from the environmental groups. Police and organizers kept the groups about four feet away from each other as the UMWA marched past.

Thousands of coal workers had gathered the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for a rally and a march. Police blocked off portions of Liberty Avenue and along the route toward the federal building for the marchers. Authorities have since reopened Liberty Avenue.

Smith said the miners who were cited for trespassing sat on the sidewalk in front of the federal building and refused to move. Getting cited was part of the plan, he said. City officials confirmed the 14 were processed and released.

“They felt strongly enough on this issue that it was something where they were willing to give up their freedom,” Smith said.

One attendee, Dave Porter, 42, has worked in the coal industry for 18 years.

“(President) Obama is putting a stranglehold on the coal industry,” said Porter, a coal worker at the Blacksville mine in Moundsville, W.Va. “That stranglehold is not doing anything for the economy in this area, it’s not doing anything for the families, it’s not doing anything for the schools.”

Al Loring, 40, who works for Cumberland Mine in Waynesburg, said the EPA regulations threaten not only workers like him, but related businesses such as repair shops and gas stations.

“It’s a domino effect,” Loring said.

Across the street at the August Wilson Center, dozens of protestors carrying signs and wearing shirts in favor of reducing carbon pollution gathered. Police officers stood on street corners while Homeland Security SUVs were parked on the sidewalk on the side of the building that faces the federal building.

More than 300 people packed a room inside the center listening to several speakers promoting clean energy, including Mayor Bill Peduto.

“As you look at energy policy, we have an opportunity to move forward, or we can stay in the 19th Century,” Peduto said. “We have an opportunity to build a new economy. The world is breaking away from the 19th Century.”

Related: EPA is asking for comments on the new Clean Power Plan proposal

Pat Marida, 72, of Columbus, Ohio, a member of the Sierra Club, held two signs, one of which said, “No to nukes, No to coal, Yes! to wind, solar, efficiency.”

“We greatly support strong carbon regulations because it’s a dangerous pollutant,” said Marida, who said she has sympathy for miners who work in the industry.

“The industry likes to pit the environmentalists against the workers, but really we want the same thing — clean, safe jobs. There does need to be some help transitioning for workers.”

Inside the federal building, speakers in the mostly subdued hearing rooms represented environmental groups, industry associations or other organizations. Some said they were just average citizens.

“Americans need our government to work for us,” said Melody Fleck of State College.

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 that were built near his home 20 years ago.

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

At least one child did the speaking himself. On the 15th floor, Peter Bixler, 15, of Philadelphia told administrators about his asthma. He hopes rules that limit emissions will help cut rising asthma rates.

“I want to live in a world where people pay attention to what’s going on on the planet,” he said after testifying.

The agency scheduled two days of hearings this week in each of four cities: Pittsburgh, Denver, Atlanta and Washington. It’s taking testimony on rules expected to be finalized next year that aim to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent.

The coal industry say the rules will harm jobs. 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.

“These decisions should be made by elected officials,” said Vince Brisini, a deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Earlier in the day, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a U.S. Senate candidate, said she believes a hearing should be held there because of the state’s coal industry. And she thanked the two dozen people in a 13th-floor meeting room who wore green camouflage UMWA t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase: “We Are Everywhere.”


Staff writers Melissa Daniels, Bobby Kerlik and Natasha Lindstrom contributed to this report.