Last Sunday, the Charlotte Observer asked the question, “Are we doing enough on coal ash?” Two people stepped in to answer. The column in the negative was written by Sam Perkins, Director of Technical Programs for the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation; the column in the affirmative was written by Mitch Griggs, vice president of environmental services for Duke Energy.
Perkins says that coal ash doesn’t get the hype it deserves. It leaches into our major rivers and lakes, poisons our fish and wildlife, and was the catalyst for one of the worst environmental disasters in our nations history. The fact is that coal ash is toxic: the heavy metals it contains are associated with cancer, birth defects, and other health problems.
“A person is entitled to do as they please on their property while respecting and not impacting property that is not their own,” says Perkins, raising a valid point: why are we allowing companies to pollute our waters? Clean water is our right, and why should current environmental regulations, which are inadequate and laden with exceptions for large utilities, allow utilities to plant coal ash ponds by public areas like Mountain Island Lake?
Fortunately, the people who live and love Mountain Island Lake, are stepping in, people like Sara Behnke. She heads up the organization We Love Mountain Island Lake, and is working to inform the public about the dangers of coal to our air, water and health. Specifically, she speaks up about the Riverbend Steam Station, its coal ash ponds, and their proximity to Mountain Island Lake, which happens to serve drinking water for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Gastonia, and Mt. Holly. All in all, about 860,000 people get their drinking water from Mountain island Lake.
Sara and We Love Mountain Island Lake fight against the Riverbend coal ash ponds, which have no liners, that contaminate groundwater with toxic metals. They fight against the water containing arsenic that is released from these ponds every day into Mountain Island Lake. They fight against the waters that are being taken from us every day.
Two Fridays ago, I had the pleasure of attending We Love Mountain Island Lake’s movie night. It happened on the green space between Highway 16 and the Chick-fil-A, beneath the far-stretching power lines. In the middle of urban sprawl, it was a reclaimed space for the children and their parents to learn about the dangers of coal ash and to have a little fun, too. (I personally didn’t care for The Lorax’s awkward young love story, but hey, I am no Ebert.)
Organizations like We Love Mountain Island Lake are not too loved by Duke Energy spokespeople like Mitch Griggs. He states in his column that coal ash is mostly harmless, since it “is made of the common elements found in soils, such as silicon, iron, aluminum and calcium.” (What about the arsenic, mercury, and chromium that Perkins informs us of?) Griggs then shifts the question from the quality of coal ash regulation (i.e. that regulation is extremely lax), to the question of if it’s regulated.
“Anyone who tells you coal ash is not regulated today is trying to mislead you,” Griggs says. The company voluntarily monitors their groundwater, and if any indication that “groundwater was being impacted by the onsite storage of coal ash, we would work with local health officials and state regulators to address and resolve the problem.” So, without federal regulations on coal ash in place, we should just trust Duke Energy: it’s OK that coal ash contains some of the earth’s deadliest toxics.
You know, we just can’t regulate toxic coal ash as “hazardous.” Regulating coal ash as a hazardous substance, Grigg says, would result in “tremendous cost increases” to their customers with “little additional environmental benefit.” Would the “little environmental benefit” be drinkable water, without any arsenic, mercury, and chromium in it? Certainly, those “tremendous cost increases” are so terribly tremendous, simply gargantuan, that no practical citizen would ask Duke Energy to foot the bill for clean water. (And need we forget the 28,000 new jobs that would come from strict regulation of coal ash disposal?)
“Let’s spend less time using sensationalized sound bites,” Griggs concludes, “and more time applying any appropriate new regulations.”
I think Behnke and Perkins can agree on this last point. Let’s spend more time figuring out how we can protect our waterways from coal’s pollution.