Sarah Kellogg, N.C. Field Organizer, 919-616-0830
Pictures of the event can be found here.
Walnut Cove, N.C.– More than 50 concerned citizens gathered today at Belews Lake to demand the full cleanup of coal ash ponds across North Carolina, but especially the nearby site at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station, the largest coal ash pond in the South, which has been contaminating waters in the area for decades.
The rally was held to mark the one-year anniversary of the infamous coal ash spill at Duke Energy’s power plant in Eden, N.C. that sent 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River, and to draw attention to the dangers the even larger coal ash pond at the Belews Creek site poses to the Dan and neighboring communities.
Residents of the surrounding Pine Hall and Walnut Cove communities worry about the safety of their drinking water which comes from wells. The Environmental Protection Agency and the state have documented cases of groundwater contamination at the site, and many residents still remember when 19 of 20 fish species found Belews Lake were wiped out in the late 1970s due to selenium pollution associated with coal ash contamination.
“The one thing I would ask is that my children and grandchildren have clean air and clean water. That’s a God-given right,” said Alfred Warren, who lives a mile and a half from the Duke site. “That plant should be a high priority for cleanup. ”
Another resident who came to the event said the Belews Creek plant has polluted the community in other ways, as well. “In addition to coal ash ponds, there’s the exposure from trucks going through our neighborhood 24/7, and safety concerns of other chemicals used there and pollution coming from the smokestacks,” said McKinnley Warren.
Both men, who are long-time residents of the historically predominant African-American community, also said they believe the original siting of the plant there and the ongoing pollution is an example of environmental racism. “This is a civil rights issue,” said Alfred Warren.
The coal ash at Belews Creek spreads across 342 acres and sits just 35 miles upstream of Eden, N.C. The Belews Creek power plant, like the Dan River plant, discharges directly into the Dan River and Duke Energy is currently involved in lawsuits for violations of the Clean Water Act, its wastewater permit, and North Carolina law at the Belews Creek plant.
The earthen dam that holds back the coal ash at Belews Creek from the Dan River and neighboring communities has known structural weaknesses and is rated “high hazard” by the EPA, meaning loss of life and property are likely if it failed. Citizens in the area are rightfully concerned that the dam could break, causing an even larger disaster than last year’s coal ash spill into the Dan River.
“There are corrugated metal pipes at the coal ash pond at Belews Creek that could fail just like the pipe at the Dan River plant failed,” says Amy Adams, N.C. Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices and former manager at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “What is even more worrisome is that the community surrounding the Belews Creek plant is exposed to illegal pollution from coal ash every day, and Duke Energy discharges contaminated water into the Dan River every day, and yet the state has not determined that Belews Creek is high priority for cleanup.”
Under the North Carolina Coal Ash Management Act, , passed last September in response to the Dan River spill, a commission must decide how all coal ash sites in North Carolina will be cleaned up before the end of 2015. While the Dan River plant in Eden, N.C. has already been designated as high priority, meaning it will receive a full and timely cleanup, the dangerous coal ash ponds at Belews Creek have not yet been addressed.
Caroline Armijo, a local activist and artist, was one of several people who spoke at the event. “Maybe you’ve noticed that one of our community leaders is not here. Annie Brown was an outspoken advocate, but she passed away last year of a heart attack. She’s not the only one who’s left us,” Armijo said. “We’re here today to demand that Belews Creek be a high priority for clean up.”
A short video featuring Annie Brown, McKinnley Warren, Armijo and other community members can be found here.