In the Neighborhood: Living with Coal Ash

Date: August 6, 2015

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Tracey Edwards speaks in Walnut Cove, N.C., where the NAACP announced it would investigate whether black communities are disproportionately affected by environmental contamination. Photo by Jaimie McGirt

Tracey Edwards speaks in Walnut Cove, N.C., where the NAACP announced it would investigate whether black communities are disproportionately affected by environmental contamination. Photo by Jaimie McGirt

By Sandra Diaz

Tracey Edwards, a lifelong resident of Stokes County, resides within three miles of the coal-fired Belews Creek Steam Station, and is concerned about the coal ash the plant generates.

As a child growing up in the mostly African-American neighborhood of Walnut Tree, Edwards played outside and ate from neighborhood apple and cherry trees. She remembers the same ash that fell on the neighborhood also covered her father’s clothes when he came from work at the Belews Station.

Today, that ash is captured by air pollution controls and is stored with other waste the plant produces. The Belews Steam Station has one unlined, 350-acre pit of ash and water, as well as three dry landfills, one unlined, scattered within a mile of the plant. The ash is contaminating nearby groundwater and may also be affecting well water, which many residents rely on for drinking and other household uses.

Edwards’ family has a history of inexplicable health issues. Her father was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2002. Her mother, Annie, began to have neurological issues, which eventually her left hand clenched up into a permanent fist; puzzled doctors tentatively diagnosed it as multiple sclerosis.

By 44, Tracey had suffered three strokes, and now she has a defibrillator. Her neighbors have also experienced abnormally high incidences of illnesses, Edwards says, such as strokes and cancers.

Due to a new state law, Duke Energy is now required to test drinking water wells within 1,500 feet of all North Carolina ash ponds. So far, several homes near the Belews plant have received “do-not-drink” notices, but Duke has not sampled dozens more within the testing radius. Of the 446 wells identified for testing statewide, results from 327 have been analyzed by the state health department, and 301 homeowners have received “do not drink” notices. Most of the wells tested high for vanadium or hexavalent chromium, both known carcinogens.

In 2014 Edwards and her mother helped form Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup, which hosts monthly meetings to discuss how to hold Duke Energy accountable for their coal ash pollution. After her mother passed away last September, Edwards continued to work with the group.

In May, Stokes County commissioners allowed the state to take a core sample for natural gas, and the preliminary results hinted that gas may be present, raising new concerns that fracking operations could create seismic activity that could damage the coal ash impoundment.

“I live here, my children live here. and I don’t want anyone else to get sick,” says Edwards. “We just want safe clean air and water. We can’t exist without clean water.”

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