By Elizabeth E. Payne
A report issued by the federal Commission on Civil Rights in September examines whether the Environmental Protection Agency is complying with its environmental justice obligations. Environmental justice refers to the enforcement of environmental laws and policies fairly, regardless of an individual’s race, color or income.
The report focused largely on the agency’s regulation of coal ash disposal. The commission, members of which spoke with North Carolinians living near coal ash ponds in March 2016, found that “Racial minorities and low income communities are disproportionately affected by the siting of waste disposal facilities and often lack political and financial clout to properly bargain with polluters when fighting a decision or seeking redress.”
The commission made several recommendations, including listing coal ash as a “special hazard” and funding more research on the health impacts of exposure to coal ash.
In Georgia, the board members with the state’s Department of Natural Resources approved the Environmental Protection Division’s final coal ash disposal and storage rules on Oct. 26. “These rules are an important step forward, but they do not go far enough,” said a statement from the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit legal organization.
The new rules were adopted two days after heavy metals contamination was found in the groundwater near several Georgia Power plants, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In October 2016, Virginia Dominion Power withdrew an application to discharge wastewater from coal ash ponds at its Chesapeake power plant into surrounding waterways. Last year, the Sierra Club — represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center — sued Dominion for alleged groundwater contamination at the Chesapeake plant.
In North Carolina, conservation groups Yadkin Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance reached a settlement with Duke Energy on Oct. 5 after two years of litigation. The settlement requires that that the coal ash from the impoundments at its Buck Steam Station in Salisbury, N.C., be excavated and removed. Much of the ash will be recycled into concrete.
Lawsuits are still underway concerning the cleanup of other Duke Energy plants in the state, including Belews Creek, whose coal ash ponds Duke intends to cap in place (see page 27)
In early October, heavy rains accompanying Hurricane Matthew led to severe flooding across the eastern part of the state. According to United Press International, the storm caused $1.5 billion in property damage in the state and killed at least 26 people.
Among the structures damaged in the flooding following the storm was an inactive coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee facility, a retired coal-fired power plant near Goldsboro, N.C. The inactive ponds at this facility contain more than one million tons of coal ash.
According to Waterkeeper Alliance, the impoundment ponds were submerged under flood water for seven days. As floodwater receded, an undetermined amount of the toxic waste product spilled into the Neuse River. A white material — comprised of fly ash particles known as cenospheres, one of many waste products from burning coal — coated the trees, banks and river surfaces.
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is evaluating whether enforcement actions are needed.