By Hallie Carde
Red, White and Water intern, Spring 2013
North Carolina, we have a problem.
The waste from burning coal, known as coal ash, continues to threaten our state’s water supply. Seepage from coal ash impoundments is contaminating North Carolina’s water at various sites throughout the state. Unaddressed in the past and denied in the present, this pollution demands a stronger fight to protect clean water, and advocates are putting up that fight.
Unfortunately, advocates for N.C.’s clean water recently lost a battle on the coal ash front. This past Monday, the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) ruled against a petition to require Duke Energy to clean up contamination resulting from 14 of their coal ash pits.
Monday’s hearing ended in a 9-2 decision that the company’s coal ash sites are exempt from the requirements of the state’s groundwater standards and therefore do not require immediate clean up.
In October, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a formal complaint on behalf of four organizations (Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, and Western N.C. Alliance) against Progress and Duke Energies to clean up the contamination from their coal ash ponds.
“This stuff is hazardous waste in everything but name,” said D.J. Gerken, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville.
You could say that the EMC’s recent ruling impeded progress for the sake of Progress — Progress Energy and Duke Energy, that is.
The influence of the Chamber of Commerce and the N.C. League of Municipalities was evident as the power of politics and pressure played out in the ruling.
In one of many letters the EMC received prior to the hearing, Raleigh City Manager Russell Allen cautioned against ruling in favor of the environmental petition.
“The city owns and operates facilities that could be adversely affected,” he wrote.
What about the people and natural resources that are adversely affected by the present pollution?
North Carolina citizens should not be left to wonder.
The answer, however, does not become any clearer at the surface. Last month, the Catawba Riverkeeper found seeps in the coal ash dams, where water from the dams is mixing with surface water. This seepage results from coal ash stored in unlined lagoons contained by earthen dams.
One large leak was found below an ash pond dike below Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Station at Lake Wylie while three other leaks were located near the Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake, both of which are primary sources of community drinking water.
Surprised? Well, Duke Energy isn’t.
A spokesperson from this power company claims that this seepage is neither surprising nor cause for worry. In fact, according to Duke Energy’s Erin Culbert, these various seepage points are apparently “a normal function of a healthy, engineered dam.” For North Carolina citizens, statements like these are surprising and worrying enough.
Rather than leaving our natural resources to the inconsistencies and inefficiencies of state regulation, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency needs to provide minimum and consistent federal standards on coal ash. The Southern Environmental Law Center has already created a blueprint (PDF) for such potential safeguards.
We need also need our members of Congress to allow the EPA to uphold its duty to protect our water. You can let them know here.
The inevitable effects of environmental inaction are becoming too obvious to ignore.
So yes, North Carolina we have a problem. But together, we can create a solution.
In the meantime, sing the Catawba Blues with me! (thanks to Catawba Riverkeeper for this gem!)