Following the disastrous coal ash spill at the Dan River nearly two years ago, the North Carolina Legislature and Gov. McCrory charted a path to begin to address the state’s 14 coal-fired power plants.
The Coal Ash Management Act emerged last August, requiring Duke Energy to clean up four high-priority coal ash lagoons, and in June, the company announced it would clean up basins at three more facilities. (Last week, a judge rejected a bid by the state’s environmental agency to block this cleanup effort; DENR claimed that the move would circumvent the public rule-making process designed by the coal ash law).
But many residents across North Carolina who are directly impacted by coal ash are unhappy.
With support from environmentalists groups like NC WARN, Appalachian Voices, Clean Water for NC and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, residents formed an alliance to call on Duke Energy, the General Assembly, DENR and Gov. McCrory to “find permanent, safe solutions for coal ash that protect all communities from the toxic waste.” The group calls itself the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash.
There was Dawn Crawley, for example, who owns a farm in Sanford near Duke Energy’s proposed coal ash landfill, where Duke Energy will dump millions of tons of coal ash. The landfills will be owned and maintained not by Duke Energy but by Green Meadow, a limited liability company. Crawley doesn’t trust that the coal ash won’t leak through the storage basin liners and seep into the groundwater.
“Streams come right across my pasture and I use the springs to water my animals,” she said. “Duke won’t admit they’ve done wrong, why would we expect Green Meadows LLC to admit wrong doing?”
Then there was Larry Mathis from Belmont, who in 2002 purchased a home within 1,000 feet of coal ash ponds at Duke’s G.G. Allen Power Plant. In 1996, Duke Energy dumped 280,000 tons of coal ash into an unlined landfill in what would become Mathis’ backyard. Duke is no longer responsible for the coal ash, but Mathis’ community’s well, which is operated by the private water company Aqua NC, is contaminated. The water is unsafe to drink or cook with; Duke Energy has been giving bottled water out to residents, but won’t do so for much longer.
“Our water had been tested by DENR, and was found to have 38 times the state standard for Vanadium,” Mathis said. “It has 28.6 times the standard for hexavalent chromium. The more I’ve learned, the more concerns I have about health and safety. Our property values have suffered as well. Who wants to live in a place with contaminated water, contaminated land and dirty air?”
Vanadium compounds are toxic; hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen.
The Rev. Mack Legerton, a Robeson County resident, urged the governor, the Legislature, Duke Energy and DENR to “slow the process down, halt the existing plans, identify all the options available and analyze the pros and cons of every solution being used across the United States and internationally.” He says the state should be studying solutions to coal ash management while the issue is being litigated in the courts.
While environmentalists don’t yet know the best way to store coal ash safely, they all agree that the cap-in-place method that Duke Energy has proposed is inadequate. Duke Energy and DENR have not decided on prioritization for clean-up of sites other than those identified in the Coal Ash Management Act, including the still-active Allen and Belews Creek sites, two of the largest in the state.
“There’s the potential that [Duke Energy] will just cap that ash in place, which will not protect ground water,” said Sarah Kellogg, a field organizer for Appalachian voices. “That’s one opportunity where everyone could listen and step up.”
Bobby Jones, a Goldsboro resident and member of the Down East Coal Ash Coalition, said providing education “as to the magnitude of this problem, how serious it is, how massive it is, how many people are dying because of this” is the most important step.
“This is not something where we can drop a few million dollars and make some nice newsreels and it will go away,” Jones said. “This is killing people in our state, so the first thing that needs to be done is education of the public. A lot of people don’t have a grasp of the seriousness and the nature of this problem.”