Posts Tagged ‘Coal Ash’

Living on Bottled Water

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by interns

NC Community Struggles with Drinking Well Contamination

By Sarah Kellogg

Bottles of water sit in stacks in Amy Brown’s living room. She is now familiar with how many bottles are needed for each family meal — boiling spaghetti takes four, while only two are needed for rice.

Bottles of water sit in stacks in Amy Brown’s living room. She is now familiar with how many bottles are needed for each family meal — boiling spaghetti takes four, while only two are needed for rice.

Amy Brown is a mother of two raising her children in a small neighborhood of Belmont, N.C., right next to Duke Energy’s G.G. Allen Power Plant. Last spring, her neighbors began receiving letters from the state notifying them that their well water was unsafe to drink or cook with due to unsafe levels of contaminants that can also be found in coal ash. It wasn’t long before Brown received a letter of her own. Prior to the well water tests required by North Carolina’s 2014 Coal Ash Management Act, Brown believed that she was raising her children in a safe, healthy and happy environment.

“Now when I turn on the water,” says Brown, “I turn on fear.”

Drinking water wells in the Belmont neighborhood, like most of the wells tested within 1,000 feet of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds throughout the state, are contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as hexavalent chromium and vanadium. Hexavalent chromium is a toxic compound, most often formed through industrial processes, that is known to cause cancer. In Belmont, well tests show hexavalent chromium levels ranging from 3.4 times to as much as 71.4 times higher than the state’s allowable standard.

Duke Energy has responded to concerns of residents by providing one gallon of bottled water per person per day. The company refused to answer residents’ questions about the condition of their water, stating only that, “we do not have any reason to believe that the contamination is coming from our coal ash ponds.”

Duke and the state have both tested wells that they claim could not be affected by coal ash in an effort to determine how the high levels of contaminants found in Duke’s neighbors drinking wells compare to other drinking wells in the area. The state tested 24 background wells and published a blog post stating that the levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium were similar to those nearer to the site. They did not release any data.

In response, Dr. Ken Rudo, North Carolina’s state toxicologist, explained at a community meeting that of the 192 residential wells near Duke’s coal ash ponds tested under the 2014 coal ash law showed unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium, while 74 percent of those wells showed levels higher than the averages found in the 24 background wells tested by the state environmental agency.

In addition, Duke’s groundwater assessment report for the G.G. Allen plant, required by the Coal Ash Management Act and funded by the company, states that the contaminated groundwater coming from Duke’s ash ponds appears to be moving away from neighbors’ wells toward the Catawba River. The study did not include any tests for hexavalent chromium.

Larry Mathis of Belmont, N.C., represents a new statewide coalition of residents affected by coal ash at a September press conference in Raleigh. Rep. Charles Graham of Lumberton, N.C., sponsored the press conference on behalf of Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash. Photo by Marie Garlock

Larry Mathis of Belmont, N.C., represents a new statewide coalition of residents affected by coal ash at a September press conference in Raleigh. Rep. Charles Graham of Lumberton, N.C., sponsored the press conference on behalf of Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash. Photo by Marie Garlock

Many residents and environmental groups question the validity of Duke’s groundwater report.

Brown questions Duke’s claim that the multi-acred plume of groundwater contamination under Duke’s ponds isn’t affecting her well, which is surrounded on 3 sides by the toxic plume. “That must be some pretty smart water,” quipped Brown, “to know to go right up to Duke’s property line, but never cross it.”

Sam Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper, has concerns about the location and depth of both the state’s and Duke’s background wells in addition to the company’s analysis of the groundwater flow.

Despite Duke’s assurance that their study is good news for their neighbors in Belmont, residents with contaminated wells are not reassured.

“We are living off bottled water and our property is worth nothing,” says Belmont resident Larry Mathis, whose well tested 26.8 times higher than the state’s standard for hexavalent chromium. “Duke says they’re a good neighbor, but they need to admit they’ve done wrong and step up to do better. It’s not just our house and our land, it’s our home.”

Brown was consistently disappointed by the lack of answers she received from both Duke and state environmental regulators about the safety of her well water. Since receiving her do-not-drink letter, she has worked to connect her entire neighborhood to the resources they need to receive bottled water and organized community meetings with agencies she hoped would give her and her neighbors answers.

“I am my children’s voice and I have a job to do,” she says. “Trust me when I say that I intend to do it well!”

In late September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Duke Energy settled a 15-year lawsuit over the company’s violations of the Clean Air Act. Duke was charged with illegally modifying 13 coal-fired units without installing proper pollution controls or obtaining permits. Of those 13 units, 11 have been shut down, but the remaining two are still operating at the G.G. Allen power plant, raising concerns among residents about how the air pollution may have affected their health.

Adding to those concerns is a recent study published by Duke University which found that coal ash particles are ten times more radioactive than the unburned coal it came from. The study noted that inhaling coal ash could be more harmful than previously thought because radioactivity is concentrated in the small particles.

Duke Energy and the state have yet to make any decisions about how to address the coal ash at G.G. Allen, and neighbors are left to wonder what will come of their homes and their lives.

As Brown put it, “How much more of a prisoner can I feel like in my home, when Duke has contaminated my air and my water?”

For the latest on coal ash, visit our Cleaning Up Coal Ash campaign.

Communities Coming Together To Clean Up Coal Ash

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by interns

At the General Assembly building in downtown Raleigh, N.C., community organizations and residents concerned about coal ash cleanup held a press conference on Sept. 23 announcing the formation of the Alliance for Carolinians Together (A.C.T.) Against Coal Ash.

This new statewide grassroots organization — supported by Appalachian Voices — represents groups impacted by coal ash from across North Carolina. The A.C.T. alliance demands that N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and other state decision-makers hold Duke Energy accountable for its leaking coal ash containment pits and that decisions about cleanup options include the voices of impacted residents in a transparent process.

We are proud to work alongside our partners to help low-income and minority communities fight to clean up the coal ash pits that are literally leaking in their backyards and polluting their water.

For more information about A.C.T. and our work to clean up coal ash, visit

Two steps forward, one step back on coal ash in N.C.

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015 - posted by Ridge Graham


Communities impacted by coal ash celebrated a pair of positive strides recently, only to be disappointed by another fast move on the part of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and Duke Energy.

One step forward …

On September 23, community organizations and residents advocating for coal ash cleanup held a press conference at the General Assembly building in downtown Raleigh to announce the formation of the Alliance of Carolinians Together (A.C.T.) Against Coal Ash. Media covering the conference came from the Greensboro Triad, the Raleigh Triangle and Charlotte, with TV and print news both represented.

The new grassroots alliance demands that the DEQ and state decision-makers hold Duke Energy financially accountable for dealing with its leaking coal ash pits across the state in a long-term, safe manner, and that the company remediate the contamination of groundwater and residential property. The alliance also calls for the assessment of the environmental and health effects of coal ash to be transparent.

Duke Energy’s official response was to state that their site evaluations indicate that groundwater is generally flowing away from public wells, and that the presence of a toxic chemical, vanadium, is naturally occurring—even at levels 38 times higher than allowable concentrations, as was recently discovered in a privately owned well near Duke’s G.G. Allen power plant.

Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County.

Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County.

As Larry Mathis, president of the homeowner’s association near the Allen plant, asked: “Trust them? I think not.”

>> Watch a video of the conference here.

Another step forward …

On Monday night, the Stokes County Commission held a public hearing on a proposed moratorium on fracking in the county. Community members packed the courthouse, and almost all who spoke favored the moratorium. The commissioners, noting the environmental and public threat already in the county due to Duke Energy’s coal ash pits at the Belews power plant, unanimously voted for a three-year moratorium on fracking. Although not an outright ban, the moratorium prohibits zoning permits from being filed and any resulting violations will result in a $500 per day fine. Their decision was celebrated with tears, hugs and a standing ovation from those in attendance.

And a step back …

Just yesterday, however, DEQ was patting itself on the back with the announcement of a settlement with Duke Energy, which will pay a fine of $7 million for groundwater contamination related to the utility’s coal ash pits. The fine is much less than the $25 million the DEQ originally sought for pollution violations at Duke’s Sutton Lake power plant outside of Wilmington, N.C. In addition, the $7 million will be spread between all of Duke’s 14 power plants in the state coming to just $500,000 per site for cleanup of groundwater contamination.

The DEQ says the settlement will accelerate the cleanup at the Belews and Sutton sites. But, as outlined in the Coal Ash Management Act, Duke Energy is already required to accelerate the cleanups since coal ash contamination was found outside of their property boundary. This toothless P.R. move meant to show that DEQ is being tough on Duke Energy has potentially detrimental consequences for N.C. residents. Frank Holleman, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, points to Duke’s statements regarding the settlement as intention to prevent any further action brought against the utility giant.

As Bobby Jones of the Downeast Coal Ash Coalition said during last week’s press conference launching the A.C.T. Against Coal Ash: “This is not something where we can drop a few million dollars and make some nice newsreels and it will go away.”

NCDENR needs to step up

Friday, September 18th, 2015 - posted by tom

Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region.

Amy Brown is a mother of two living in the small community of Belmont, N.C. One of her neighbors is the G.G. Allen Steam Station, a facility owned by Duke Energy that includes a coal-fired power plant and two massive coal ash pits. This spring, she got a letter from the utility warning her not to use her tap water for drinking or cooking because of contamination, one of nearly 300 people around the state to get such letters. She and her family are now living day to day on bottled water.

Watch this short video about Amy’s story:

Toxins found in coal ash like arsenic and selenium can have dangerous health consequences when they leak into water supplies. And a study out this month shows that coal ash can be five times more radioactive than average U.S. soil.

Since the catastrophe in February 2014 that spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River near the border of North Carolina and Virginia, there’s been much foot-dragging and finger-pointing between Duke, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and state lawmakers about what to do with the massive amounts of coal ash sitting in leaking pits around the state.

But, due largely to public pressure, some progress has been made. A state law passed last year requires, among other things, the cleanup of four sites that pose a high threat. And Duke recently proposed cleaning up three additional sites that its studies showed are priorities for excavation.

So it was an Orwellian turn of events when DENR asked the courts to disallow Duke’s plan. DENR is the very entity entrusted with defending public health and the environment from pollution.

Then again, this is a so-called “new and improved” agency under the McCrory administration, aiming to serve large corporations as its primary “customers.” As Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams noted in an op-ed in the News & Observer, DENR is contorting its own mission statement to avoid responsibility. It says it applies science to policy but refuses to see the facts. It says it wants to be a “resource of invaluable public assistance,” and yet refuses to assist the people living near the three sites Duke is willing to clean up.

Earlier this week, the courts rejected DENR’s attempt to block the cleanup. That’s a loud voice joining the statewide chorus of citizens like Amy Brown, public interest groups like Appalachian Voices, and many others calling on DENR to do its job and fix this problem.

DENR is a “BOOR”

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015 - posted by amy

{ Editor’s Note } This op-ed by our North Carolina Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams first appeared in the News & Observer on Sept. 4.

Cleanup efforts underway at Duke Energy's Dan River plant after the 2014 coal ash spill. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cleanup efforts underway at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant after the 2014 coal ash spill. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

UPDATE: On Sept. 15, a North Carolina judge overruled the effort by DENR mentioned in this op-ed to block an agreement between Duke Energy and environmental groups that includes plans to excavate coal ash from three additional sites.

Two years ago, I was navigating the dramatic change in North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources following the politically driven and hostile takeover of the agency by the General Assembly. The change ultimately forced me to resign as a regional supervisor with the agency. One of my complaints was DENR’s new mission statement, written by then-Secretary of Environment John Skvarla. The mission statement was so important to the new regime that our bosses gave us pop quizzes on the wording.

So let’s check in on how DENR is doing to meet its new mission. According to the “Fundamental Philosophy” section:

“Agency personnel, operating within the confines of the regulations, must always be a resource of invaluable public assistance, rather than a bureaucratic obstacle of resistance.”

The biggest issue DENR has had to deal with these last couple of years is coal ash, which affects residents from one end of the state to the other. Yet the agency has been the epitome of a “bureaucratic obstacle of resistance,” or BOOR, on the issue. The most recent BOORish behavior is the agency’s opposition to Duke Energy’s proposal to clean up coal ash above and beyond what the law requires. DENR argues this would “shortcut” the Coal Ash Management Act passed last year.

The law identifies four of Duke Energy’s coal ash pits that are particularly problematic and requires DENR to prioritize them for clean-up. It also requires the agency to rate the risk posed by the remaining coal ash sites and assign the level of cleanup, and it stipulates that any sites rated as “high risk” must be excavated and the ash disposed of in a lined landfill either on-site or off-site.

In addition to the four sites, Duke Energy, based on its own analysis, has opted to commit to the highest level cleanup at three additional sites, proposing the idea in motions filed in an ongoing legal fight among Duke Energy, DENR and environmental groups (Appalachian Voices included). DENR will not agree, clinging to a BOORish mentality that it and only it can designate sites for clean-up, and insisting that the lengthy, bureaucratic process must be followed.

Let’s check out another section of DENR’s new mission statement, titled “Fundamental Science”:

“Environmental science is quite complex, comprised of many components, and most importantly, contains diversity of opinion. In this regard, all public programs and scientific conclusions must be reflective of input from a variety of legitimate, diverse and thoughtful perspectives.”

In court filings, DENR attorneys say, “Science should inform the decision as to which impoundments are closed first.” Yes, it should. As required by law, Duke Energy is collecting and delivering to DENR information, data and scientific analysis about its coal ash pits and has been including the public in that process. It’s the same data on which the agency will make its risk rating. So here, the BOOR is failing to consider analysis by Duke Energy, not to mention the perspectives of multiple environmental nonprofits, a suite of expert attorneys, a state judge and public opinion – all of whom have agreed to the highest level of cleanup at the three additional sites – as “legitimate, diverse and thoughtful.”

DENR’s creative interpretation of its own mission statement is just one reflection of this administration’s broader hostility to the notion that public servants have a responsibility to protect the natural resources and therefore the public health and welfare of the Tar Heel state. Gov. Pat McCrory is actively promoting our shorelines as prime areas for offshore oil and gas drilling. Environment Secretary Donald Van der Vaart stands against two fundamental federal laws – the Clean Power Plan, the first-ever rule to limit carbon pollution from America’s power plants, and a 2015 clarification of the Clean Water Act to protect many more miles of streams.

Commerce Secretary Skvarla (formerly of DENR) is promoting the idea that there may be natural gas deposits in Stokes County and is campaigning for budget money, aka taxpayer dollars, to lure fracking companies to North Carolina.

With all these anti-environmental positions, DENR has become more like a fossil fuel advocacy group than environmental protector. So this is progress according to the new DENR? It is painful to witness, and I am disheartened that the leadership has changed the agency to a shell of its former self.

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Coal Ash: It’s not just toxic, it’s radioactive!

Friday, September 4th, 2015 - posted by sarah

Scientists, environmental advocates and citizens living near coal ash ponds have long been concerned about the possible radioactivity of coal ash. And rightly so. On Wednesday, Duke University released a study which shows that coal ash from all three major U.S. coal-producing basins contains radioactive contaminants.

Caroline Armijo, who grew up near Duke's coal ash ponds in Belews Creek, speaks to a crowd of other Belews Creek residents about the health problems in their community. Armijo has long wondered if radioactivity from coal ash could be contributing to health problems in the community.

Caroline Armijo, who grew up near Duke’s coal ash ponds in Belews Creek, speaks to a crowd of other Belews Creek residents about the health problems in their community. Armijo has long wondered if radioactivity from coal ash could be contributing to health problems in the community.

According to Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University and contributor to the study, in addition to heavy metals found in coal ash, “we should also be looking for radioactive elements, such as radium isotopes and lead-210, and including them in our monitoring efforts.”

Currently, coal ash and contaminated groundwater leaking from coal ash ponds are not tested for radioactivity. “We don’t know how much of these contaminants are released to the environment, and how they might affect human health in areas where coal ash ponds and landfills are leaking. Our study opens the door for future evaluation of this potential risk,” Vengosh says.

The study found that the radioactivity was up to ten times higher in coal ash than in the coal it came from, and up to five times higher than average U.S. soil. The study also concluded that radioactivity is concentrated in the small particles of fly ash and that exposure to dry ash particles could also be of concern.

For some North Carolina residents living next to Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plants who remember the days when fly ash would float in the air like snow, landing on their homes and gardens, the study raises concerns about the health effects that kind of exposure had on their community. Caroline Armijo who grew up in Walnut Cove, home to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant, believes the radioactivity of coal ash could be the root cause of the startling rates of cancer she’s observed in her home town.

“I applaud Duke University’s recent discovery,” says Armijo, “and pray this insight will lead us to a better understanding of the best way to clean up coal ash in our community.”

Currently, Duke Energy dumps its coal ash as a wet slurry into unlined pits, or as dry ash into landfills. At the Belews site — the largest in North Carolina – an unlined pond holds wet coal ash and a lined landfill, which is known to be leaking, holds the dry. Armijo and many others in the community want the utility to dispose of the coal ash in a way that protects them, the air and the groundwater from toxic metals — and from radioactivity.

VIDEO: “Contaminated, But Smart!”- Duke Energy’s New Coal Ash Assessment

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015 - posted by sarah

Duke Energy claims coal ash pollution stops at their boundary, impacted families angered

On Monday evening, Duke Energy released the executive statement from the company’s study assessing the groundwater contamination at two of their largest coal ash sites in North Carolina, the Allen and Buck Steam Stations in Belmont and Salisbury, respectively. Unsurprisingly, Duke Energy’s finding suggested they were likely not responsible for the contamination found in the drinking water wells of over 200 households within 1,000 feet of the company’s coal ash dumps.

From Duke’s executive summary:

Based on data obtained during this CSA, the groundwater flow direction, and the extent of exceedances of boron and sulfate, it appears that groundwater impacted by the ash basin is contained within the Duke Energy property boundary.

Check out local Belmont resident’s reaction to the the summary:

Duke Energy has not proven that contamination from ash basins isn’t moving in the direction of the neighbors’ wells. They have only said what “appears” to be the case, and while they may hope it gives them some legal cover (though that certainly remains to be seen), it does nothing to assuage the overwhelming concerns and fears of families who have been told their water is unsafe for drinking and cooking.

One glaring omission is that Duke Energy did not test for hexavalent chromium, a dangerous heavy metal and known carcinogen that has been found at high levels in dozens of private wells neighboring the utility’s coal ash dumps. According to the Charlotte Observer, Duke did not report results for hexavalent chromium because of a “a lack of time to collect and analyze the data.”

This isn’t the first time Duke Energy has neglected to test for the harmful contaminant; they have never tested for hexavalent chromium, and therefore there is no historical data on which to base their claims that the heavy metal is not migrating to neighbors’ wells from the company’s coal ash ponds.

Trivalent chromium can transform into its more toxic form, hexavalent chromium when it comes in contact with high-heat industrial processes (like burning coal). Exceedances for total chromium have been found in groundwater monitoring results conducted by Duke Energy at their property line. How much of that chromium is hexavalent is unknown.

Duke Energy’s release of the report comes on the heels of a N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources blog post stating that the agency has tested 24 background wells and found levels of contaminants similar to those in private wells.

Although DENR claims that the levels are similar, the agency has yet to make the actual levels public. However, at a community meeting hosted by the N.C.Department of Health and Human Services and DENR last Thursday, Dr. Ken Rudo, the state toxicologist began the meeting by disclosing the levels of hexavalent chromium found in the background wells.

Dr. Rudo revealed that of the 24 wells sampled, 23 had levels of hexavalent chromium between “non-detect” (meaning the levels are too low for labs to read) to 1.7 parts per billion (ppb). Rudo explained that in communities within 1,000 feet of Duke’s coal ash sites, 120 to 140 wells showed levels of hexavalent chromium that exceed the average levels of the background wells.

Clean Water for AllSo why are both DENR and Duke making statements that hexavalent chromium is naturally occurring when the numbers don’t necessarily demonstrate that?

The state’s health screening level for hexavalent chromium is .07 ppb. In Belmont, levels of hexavalent chromium found in wells range from .24 ppb to a whopping 5 ppb. At Thursday’s meeting, Dr. Rudo explained that the standard for hexavalent chromium is based on up-to-date science and standards in other states, and that the state health department “can defend these standards in any venue that we need to defend them.” He also warned the crowd that he is

“…much more concerned about the effects of hexavalent chromium because the science is so clear that hexavalent chromium is a chemical that has significant risk associated with it. It’s a mutagenic carcinogen, so any level can pose a risk, by definition.”

When asked by a resident if Dr. Rudo would drink her water, he firmly replied, “no”.

So where does this leave the residents who are living on bottled water? Still confused and scared about the safety of their water, nervous about their home values, wondering if they have been giving their children contaminated water to drink.

Duke Energy needs to collect data on hexavalent chromium in order to provide a more complete picture.

Clean Water Laws Wrestle With Coal

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 - posted by molly

By Molly Moore

America’s clean water laws have hampered the coal industry to varying degrees for decades, with the strength of various laws often determined by political winds. The effectiveness of the Clean Water Act and other laws often depends on whether the regulations reflect the latest advances in science and technology, and whether state and federal agencies have the will and resources to enforce the rules. That saga continues today.

Acid mine drainage flows from a mountaintop removal coal mine into Looney Creek in Wise County, Va.

Acid mine drainage flows from a mountaintop removal coal mine into Looney Creek in Wise County, Va.

Acid Mine Drainage

What: Mining exposes metal sulfides to air and water, which react to form acidic discharges. Affected water can harm or kill aquatic life and is not safe for recreation or drinking.
Where: Generated by surface and underground coal mines — both active and inactive — as well as hardrock mines.
It’s Still Happening: Acid mine drainage was among the 2015 water-quality violations at the KD #2 mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia.
The Law: The Clean Water Act and Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act require that waterways meet state and federal water quality standards.
The Problem: The Clean Water Act allows mining companies to declare that a natural body of water is not a legally protected waterway but is instead a “waste treatment system,” exempt from the law. In 2002, a change to the Clean Water Act allowed companies to begin using untreated mining waste as construction “fill material.” Also, state enforcement of the federal surface mining law is inconsistent, and acid mine drainage can begin decades after mining ceases, which can leave state governments responsible for cleanup.


What: A mineral necessary for life in extremely small amounts, but even low levels of contamination can harm or kill aquatic life.
Where: Affects ground and surface water near coal mines and coal ash ponds.
It’s Still Happening: In a landmark 2012 settlement, Patriot Coal Corp. agreed to phase out its use of mountaintop removal coal mining in order to resolve $400 million in liability for selenium pollution cleanup in West Virginia.
The Law: The Clean Water Act and Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act require that companies cannot pollute in excess of state and federal water quality standards.
The Problem: In 2013, Kentucky adopted weaker state selenium standards approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Appalachian Voices and partner organizations filed a lawsuit challenging Kentucky’s changes. And in May 2014, the EPA proposed a new federal standard that is less protective of aquatic life than the current standard.

Total Maximum Daily Loads

What: The amount of a pollutant that a waterway can tolerate while meeting water quality standards.
Where: TMDLs can be calculated for any pollutant in any impaired waterway.
It’s Still Happening: Virginia regulators set a TMDL for the South Fork Pound River. Citizens groups, including Appalachian Voices, alleged in a 2014 lawsuit that four mines owned by Red River Coal Company were violating their permits because the company’s discharges exceeded the TMDL for the entire watershed.
The Law: The Clean Water Act requires that states keep a list of impaired waterways and calculate how much of each pollutant each of those water bodies can safely handle.
The Problem: Many states have not completed their TMDL obligations. Kentucky, for example, had only assessed a quarter of state rivers and streams as of 2012. Of those, 67 percent were impaired, but officials set TMDLs for just 11 percent of those streams.

Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices collects a sample from Fields Creek following the 2014 slurry spill. Testing revealed high levels of contaminants including MCHM.

Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices collects a sample from Fields Creek following the 2014 slurry spill. Testing revealed high levels of contaminants including MCHM.

Coal Slurry

What: Sludge leftover from washing coal, this mixture consists of water, coal dust, clay and chemicals, and includes toxic heavy metals.
Where: Stored in massive, often unlined impoundments, and has also been injected into underground mines. Leaches into ground and surface water.
It’s Still Happening: Studies from 2012 show that underground slurry injections contaminated drinking water in Prenter, W.Va. In 2013, the Brushy Fork slurry impoundment was permitted to increase its capacity to 8.5 billion gallons. And in 2014, more than 100,000 gallons of slurry spilled into Fields Creek at a West Virginia coal processing plant.
The Law: The Mining Safety and Health Administration is responsible for the structural safety of a slurry impoundment, and the Clean Water Act requires state and federal enforcement of water quality standards.
The Problem: State and federal enforcement of water pollution standards can be weak and intermittent, and MSHA-inspected impoundments have failed in the past, raising concerns about dam stability.

An unlined coal ash pond at the now-shuttered Riverbend Steam Plant in Mt. Holly, N.C. Toxic seeps from the ash ponds are contaminating nearby groundwater.

An unlined coal ash pond at the now-shuttered Riverbend Steam Plant in Mt. Holly, N.C. Toxic seeps from the ash ponds are contaminating nearby groundwater.

Coal Ash

What: The waste left over from burning coal for electricity, coal ash contains 25 heavy metals and other chemicals.
Where: Often mixed with water and other industrial waste and stored in unlined impoundments near power plants, but can also be kept dry and stored in landfills. Dry ash contributes to air pollution, and liquid storage can infiltrate ground and surface water.
It’s Still Happening: Contamination of groundwater has occurred near all of North Carolina’s coal ash ponds. Between April and mid-July of 2015, the state health department deemed 301 wells near coal ash ponds unfit to drink (see map). Duke Energy denies that the contamination is related to its ash ponds. Read about the experience of one woman living near coal ash.
The Law: The EPA established the first federal regulations for coal ash in 2014. North Carolina passed its own regulations earlier that year following an impoundment failure that dumped 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River.
The Problem: Federal rules do not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. States are not required to adopt the EPA’s new standards, nor are those standards federally enforceable. The federal rule also leaves much of the responsibility for identifying coal ash contamination and seeking legal protection to citizens.

Power Plant Wastewater

What: Wastewater from coal-fired power plants includes heavy metals, carcinogens, neurotoxins and other pollutants.
Where: Rivers, streams, lakes and ponds near coal-fired power plants. Comprises half of all industrial surface water pollution, and contributes to problems such as high mercury and lead levels in fish.
It’s Still Happening: From 2008 to 2011, Eden, N.C., noticed harmful trihalomethanes in city drinking water. Investigation revealed that a nearby coal-fired power plant was releasing bromides into the Dan River, which react with water-treatment chemicals to form trihalomethanes — compounds linked to bladder cancer. In June 2015, Duke Energy settled with Eden and a nearby town.
The Law: Under the Clean Water Act, EPA regulates industrial pollution of surface water, and sets maximum levels for contaminants in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The Problem: The rules governing power plant wastewater were last updated in 1982, and do not regulate heavy metals and a range of other pollutants. In April 2013, the EPA proposed a range of scenarios for updated regulations — two would lead to a 96% reduction in pollution, while others include modest reductions in some pollutants and no reduction in arsenic and lead levels. The agency intends to finalize the rules by Sept. 30, 2015 and is currently accepting public comments. Submit a comment here.

Read about the newly released draft of the Stream Protection Rule here.

In the Neighborhood: Living with Coal Ash

Thursday, August 6th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

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.”

Contaminated Drinking Wells Near Ash Ponds

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Kimber Ray

North Carolina officials are requiring Duke Energy to test 446 wells located near the utility’s coal ash ponds, which contain the waste left over from burning coal. As of July, the state health department had analyzed results from 327 of these wells, and sent “do not drink” notices to 301 homeowners whose water contains dangerous levels of heavy metals and other contaminants associated with coal ash, such as lead, vanadium and hexavalent chromium.

Duke Energy, recently fined $102 million for nine violations of the Clean Water Act at its coal ash ponds, denies responsibility for the drinking water contamination. The state is conducting tests to determine the cause.

The utility currently plans to excavate ash from 20 of its 32 unlined coal ash ponds. The 12 that remain unaddressed account for 70 percent of the company’s statewide ash deposits, according to the Charlotte Observer. Duke is considering plans to close these ponds by leaving the waste in place and installing an earthen cap on top.