For a moment, with the help of an October breeze, rays of sunlight dance across the endless wall of spruces and pines that guards the Neuse River from the wildlife stirring beyond the riverbankrevealing, in all of its burnt orange, maroon, and yellow glory, the dawn of an eastern North Carolina fall. A blue jay, having taken notice of the motorboat making its way toward the H.F. Lee Power Plant, decides to give the man behind the wheel a run for his money. Downstream, a fish jumps out of the water.

A few hundred yards from this idyllic scene, however, poison lurksarsenic and cancer-causing heavy metals that have, yet again, been documented by environmentalists who, just days ago, took water samples that sounded alarm bells. And when the vessel slows near the bank that conceals 170 acres of inactive Duke Energy coal ash ponds and the active pond not too far down the river, the toxins reveal themselves.

Autumn seems to disappear. The trees resemble a winter landscape, one you might expect to see the morning after a heavy snow. The colors that left you breathless upstream are blanketed in a thick off-white powderone so toxic that two men who have made protecting the Neuse their respective life’s work warn you against touching.

It’s been more than two years since a catastrophic coal ash spill into the Dan River led to three Duke Energy subsidiaries pleading guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. The company was fined $68 million, ordered to pay another $24 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and told to give $10 million to a wetlands mitigation bank to offset the long-term environmental impact of the coal ash basins.

But much of Duke’s 108 million tons of ash, currently housed in pits ordered closed and excavated, remained as of a few weeks ago, as the court-ordered cleanup moves at a crawl. Then, the unthinkable happened. Hurricane Matthew flooded the H.F. Lee pits in Goldsboro, polluting the Neuse and, as a result of an unprecedented rise in the river, caking with poison trees that have stood longer than any person currently inhabiting the earth.

“I mean, look up. You’re talking a good eight feet,” says Pete Harrison, an attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a watchdog group that uncovered toxic seepage from the H.F. Lee ponds in 2014. “[Duke] said it’s not coal ash, it’s cenospheres. That’s like saying, ‘That’s not a dog, it’s a Labrador.’”

While the group contends the chalky substance caking the trees is, in fact, coal ash, cenospheresa byproduct of coal combustionare bad enough; if inhaled, they can cause respiratory damage.

Photographic and video documentation of the spill site provided by the alliance tells a story beyond the one in which a fall landscape was converted into a Tim Burton-esque winter wonderland. But proof of a one-inch-thick layer of coal ash choking the water’s surface was dismissed by Duke officials, who accused the alliance of using scare tactics to inflame the public.

“The state team that inspected the facility determined that the amount of material that was displaced would not even fill the bed of an average pickup truck,” according to a statement released by Duke.

Harrison doesn’t buy the company’s denial. “You’re talking about a million tons of coal ash” in the inactive ponds submerged by the floodwaters, he notes. And what the alliance found on the river’s surface doesn’t include the ash in the trees or toxins that likely have sunk from view.

“It’s heavy metals. They are carcinogens,” says Upper Neuse riverkeeper Matthew Starr. “The level of arsenic in the groundwater monitoring well on this site is the highest of any of their coal ash sites around the state. It’s sixty times the allowable limit of arsenic in that groundwater. Coal ash is heavily toxic. That’s why they are being required to remove the coal ash at eight of their facilities. That’s why they pled guilty during a federal investigation.”

He lays the blame for this environmental disaster squarely on Duke. “The pits are just not in the right place, and this ash is in unlined pits on the bank of rivers,” he says. “The H.F. Lee pits are in the floodway, in the flood zone. We saw it flood in ’99, so it’s just not a good place to store your coal ash. And the fix is in on this. They are going to have to fully excavate this coal ash and get it away from surface water in a lined facility. I don’t want to undermine the sheer magnitude of the amount of coal ash that’s in our state, but they can’t do it fast enough. The sooner the better.”


The McCrory administration has been notably friendly to Duke, a company that has, through its subsidiaries, donated $330,000 to the Republican Governors Association in this election cycle alone. (The RGA spent $5 million to help elect Governor McCrory four years ago and has spent millions more so far this year.) McCrory, of course, was a Duke executive for nearly three decades before taking up residence in the Executive Mansion.

After the 2014 Dan River spill, McCrory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Quality) fined Duke $25 million for “daily penalties dating back to 2012 for pollution violations.” Later, though, it reduced that figure to $6.6 million, a move that outraged environmentalists. And even after Duke pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act, Harrison points out, the administration had its back: “The state’s attorney objected,” Harrison says. “He stood up in the courtroom after Duke admitted they had committed a crime and objected.”

More recently, in August, state epidemiologist Megan Davies resigned because, in her view, the McCrory administration “deliberately” lied about how standards were drafted to test private wells near Duke’s power plants. Davies, in a sworn deposition, said state officials pressured scientists to relax testing for the carcinogenic hexavalent chromium. At the time, McCrory’s office denied involvement. And the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement vowing that “throughout this process, we’ve provided full information to homeowners about the safety of their drinking water and have taken appropriate steps to reassure citizens who have been unduly alarmed.”

In sworn testimony, however, state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo said this was a lie. He claimed that the DEQ asked that language be added to the letter sent to homeowners saying the water met federal standards. Here’s the rub: that was only true because the U.S. has no standard for hexavalent chromium.

McCrory has contended ever since that he and his administration had nothing to do with it. But last week saw the release of yet another depositionthis one, from DHHS communications director Kendra Gerlach, who testified that the language came from “the Capitol.”

“I received a fax with a sentence to be included,” Gerlach said during the deposition. “It came from the communications office, but I don’t know the individual.”


It’s likely that somewhere along the Neuse, at this very moment, Harrison and Starr are in a boat, racing blue jays down the river until they reach the ash-covered banks and trees that guard the H.F Lee plant’s inactive coal ash ponds from public scrutiny. But continuing to test the water for toxicityand releasing their findings to media outletsis the only way, they say, to keep pressure on Duke officials who have not lived up to their pledge to excavate the ash.

“It’s a public waterway. The public deserves to know what’s going on,” Starr says. “I want our water to be clean. I want it to be fishable, swimmable, and drinkable for me, for you, for your children, for the farmers and their children. I want the river to be clean for everyone.”

And he wants the legislature to put into place regulations to protect rivers like the Neuse against industrial and agricultural waste. “The longer it takes to either put back commonsense regulations on the books or to keep them on the books, the more polluted our water becomesthe more expensive and harder it becomes to get it back to a healthy place,” he says.

Make no mistake, he adds. This is not simply an eastern North Carolina problem. It affects every man, woman, and child in the state.

“This should matter to all North Carolinians because our rivers belong to all of us and it’s our legacy,” he says. “The rivers will be here long after we are gone, so it’s imperative that we protect them for our children and our children’s children. If we can’t hold industry accountable, it creates a very slippery slope.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “The Choking Neuse”