Posts Tagged ‘Coal Ash’

Statewide citizens group slams North Carolina’s coal ash pond rankings

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016 - posted by cat

Contact:
Statewide and Eastern North Carolina: Bobby Jones (919) 394-0727
Western North Carolina: Jeri Cruz-Segarra (828) 651-9576
Charlotte Area: Amy Brown (704) 301-6209
Winston-Salem Area: David Hairston (336) 655- 3413, Caroline Armijo (919) 358-5057

An alliance of North Carolinians directly impacted or threatened by Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution today released its Unifying Principles demanding that Duke Energy and state decision makers work closely with North Carolina communities to ensure they are compensated for damages to their property and health and protected from future harm. The release comes just days after the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality proposed delayed cleanup of 24 of Duke’s coal ash ponds by downgrading their risk classifications.

The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash formed in July as a way for residents from across the state to connect in solidarity in their demands for an end to the coal ash crisis. Members were appalled and confused last week when DEQ downgraded coal ash sites that as recently as December the agency’s staff had ranked as high priority. The proposed low or low-intermediate status means the sites could potentially be capped in place and left indefinitely to leak toxins into neighboring groundwater supplies.

“It’s an established fact that all sites are leaking, so of course they should be listed as high priority,” says Deborah Graham, who lives near the Buck plant in Salisbury. “We know more than we ever wanted to know about the damage this toxic waste causes to our environment and health each and every day it continues to sit there.”

“DEQ changing our priority from high to low-intermediate is just wrong,” says Debra Baker, who lives within 100 feet of the G.G. Allen plant in Belmont. “DEQ says they did not have enough information from Duke Energy, but they have had several months. Now, we are still living on bottled water, waiting for this mess to be cleaned up.”

To urgently address the realities of coal ash pollution, ACT Against Coal Ash released its Unifying Principles so that state decision makers, Duke Energy, and the public can better understand the needs and demands of residents most harmed — now or in the future — by Duke’s coal ash pollution.

The alliance also launched a website and a video.

The principles, which were agreed upon by hundreds of residents living next to Duke’s existing and proposed coal ash sites, state that all sites should be high priority, that no site should be capped in place, and that coal ash should not be dumped onto other communities. The alliance demands a transparent, honest decision-making process about coal ash cleanup that directly responds to the concerns of residents most impacted by the toxic pollution and that results in the full compensation –– paid for by Duke’s shareholders –– of all past, present, and future harms caused by the utility’s coal ash. The alliance also demands that North Carolina decision makers and Duke Energy think more creatively about how to remediate coal ash sites and work toward a clean energy future. The principles also call on Duke Energy to retain liability of its coal ash, not simply transfer it to hastily planned off-site landfills.

“At this point, Duke Energy and the state are thinking more about profit than the health and well-being of people that actually live in the communities next to Duke’s plants,” says David Hairston, a resident of the Walnut Tree community near the Belews Creek power plant. “They need to come to the communities that are actually affected and see what the living situations are like.”

“We are suffering the dumping of 12 million tons of coal ash on our community,” says Judy Hogan, president of Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dump and resident of Moncure which has been identified as a “receiving” community for excavated coal ash. “There are multiple ways toxic coal ash can get into our air and water and shorten our lives. Our state government has forgotten that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not to mention clean air and water.”

Across the state, Duke’s neighbors tell similar stories of the coal ash that used to fall from the sky like snow, landing on their homes, gardens, and families. Now, hundreds of Duke’s neighbors have contaminated drinking water wells and homes they cannot sell.

“Being a part of ACT Against Coal Ash has helped us realize that we have all directly or indirectly experienced contaminated water, having to witness family, friends, and neighbors get sick and even die, and feeling the helplessness of having to face a power giant alone,” says Bobby Jones, a leader of the Down East Coal Ash Coalition in Goldsboro, near the H.F. Lee plant. “You cannot imagine the magnitude of stress, isolation, and desperation that comes from receiving a do-not-drink letter or watching your neighbors die young from cancer.”

ADDITIONAL CITIZEN STATEMENTS:

Jeri Cruz-Segarra of Arden, who lives near the Asheville plant. “I’m just counting all the people I know around me who’ve gotten sick with cancer and have passed away. Duke should take responsibility and pay for the costs of cleaning up coal ash at all sites that have been affected by its leaking coal ash, not pass the costs on to its customers.”

Debra Baker, whose husband died from environmentally related lung disease several years after moving into their home next to G.G. Allen, which has been illegally polluting the air for decades: “We were lied to when we bought our property. We were told that there weren’t any problems with the plant because it was monitored, and we believed that. We were told that Duke cared about its neighbors, but there have been four deaths on our road in the last seven months.”

Amy Brown, a Belmont resident whose community is contaminated by hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen that is usually associated with industrial pollution. “Anything known to cause cancer shouldn’t be anything less than high priority.”

Caroline Armijo grew up near the Belews Creek power plant and has been active in coal ash work for a decade: “I am disappointed that DEQ and appointed higher-ups overlooked their own staff’s recommendations based on the science of what is best for our health and our water sources by playing politics. Not only is DEQ ignoring our fundamental rights of clean water and optimal health, but it’s neglecting to embrace the future of clean energy, an industry in which North Carolina has excelled over the last decade.”

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NC DEQ’s blatant bid for control

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 - posted by Ridge Graham

State agency clashes with the EPA and Coal Ash Management Commission

Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

Over the past few months, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has seemed determined to have complete environmental regulatory control of the state, showing little regard for federal or public input.

In this endeavor, DEQ has taken every chance it can to highlight how external forces, including citizens groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are simply getting in its way. Upholding the best interests of North Carolina’s citizens and the environment only becomes a priority when the agency is threatened with losing power.

Rejecting the Clean Power Plan

DEQ joined a lawsuit with more than two dozen of the nation’s largest carbon-emitting states against the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. In October, DEQ submitted a proposal that would only address coal-based emissions because it believes the first component of the Clean Power Plan — improving coal fired power plant efficiency — is the only aspect the EPA has the legal authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act.

TAKE ACTION: Demand a REAL Clean Power Plan for North Carolina.

But if the Clean Power Plan survives in court, and the EPA rejects North Carolina’s plan, federal regulators can intervene in North Carolina’s emission reductions process. So, in case their strategy fails, state officials plan to submit an alternate plan that aligns with the EPA’s proposal.

EPA threatens to take away DEQ’s permitting authority

This year, DEQ permitted a cement plant in Wilmington that would emit more than 5,000 tons of particulates, mercury and other air pollution annually. The agency also OKed a quarry in Blounts Creek that would discharge up to 12 million gallons of waste a day into the Pamlico River. Residents of these areas, along with coastal environmental advocacy and conservation groups, challenged these permits. The state dismissed those challenges on the grounds that the groups did not have standing.

The EPA sent a letter to DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart stating that the inability of citizens to appeal permits was troubling. The letter warned that if DEQ continued to skirt federal regulations, the EPA would revoke its authority to issue pollution permits under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

DEQ responded by shifting the blame to a court decision and presented a list of regulations required by the EPA but not by state law — insinuating that the public process for challenging permits is less burdensome on the state level. State officials said they have no intention of losing permitting authority.

DEQ takes on the Coal Ash Management Commission’s responsibilities

UPDATE: A draft summary by DEQ classified 27 of Duke Energy’s 32 coal ash ponds in North Carolina as posing a “high” or “immediate” risk. If the ratings stand when they are finalized on Dec. 31, Duke would have to excavate the coal ash from those sites.

In another isolationist move, DEQ wants to move forward on the priority classification of coal ash containment sites without the Coal Ash Management Commission. But the commission was created by the Coal Ash Management Act to be housed under the N.C. Department of Public Safety because the General Assembly determined that DEQ was ineffectual and untrustworthy in regulating coal ash.

These site classifications will determine timelines for the cleanup of coal ash at each site, with up to a decade of difference in cleanup response. Sites deemed low priority could be closed using “cap-in-place,” a method that would leave nearby waterways and communities at risk. The commission has 60 days to review the classifications before they go into effect.

However, the state Supreme Court has not yet ruled on Governor Pat McCrory’s lawsuit challenging appointments to the commission, so the group is unable to reach a quorum. When Commission Chairman Michael Jacobs wrote a letter to McCrory and legislative leaders to point this out, van der Vaart responded to say DEQ has it under control.

“Fortunately, legislators had the foresight to include provisions in the coal ash law that prevent delays to the cleanup process including a provision that ensures the prioritization and public participation processes can proceed in the absence of the Coal Ash Management Commission,” van der Vaart wrote.

He did not mention why the commission was not housed under DEQ in the first place.

DEQ blames EPA for delay in coal ash cleanup

DEQ is currently making a public fuss about the EPA taking time to review a state-issued permit to dewater the coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly, N.C. DEQ claims that this is the fifth permitting delay this year from the EPA, and that North Carolina is receiving different treatment than other states with regard to its coal ash cleanup projects.

Duke Energy's retired Riverbend Steam Station, Photo from Flickr.

Duke Energy’s retired Riverbend Steam Station, Photo by Duke Energy, licensed under Creative Commons.

Duke’s plants are permitted a discharge rate of coal ash pond water as part of a multi-step treatment process. The nearby bodies of water, many of which supply drinking water to nearby cities and towns, are monitored to determine how much impact the discharge has on the surrounding environment and watershed. DEQ is rushing to dump the entirety of the coal ash pond water into Mountain Island Lake, which is already polluted from the coal ash ponds at the Riverbend plant.

Water samples taken from Mountain Island Lake in 2013 indicated there were levels of constituents in the surface water that exceeded public health standards. Tissues samples taken from fish caught in the lake were found to have high levels of heavy metals, which led to a state-issued fish consumption advisory. Mountain Island Lake is the drinking water source more than 750,000 people.

With these considerations, is it not reasonable to take more than 15 days to analyze such a permit? Or does DEQ just want to have its way regardless of what happens to the people downstream.

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Community Networking for Coal Ash Cleanup in N.C.

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 - posted by interns

Our North Carolina team continues to work directly with those most impacted by coal ash. In November, we helped organize the second statewide gathering of ACT (Alliance of Carolinians Together) Against Coal Ash, a powerful grassroots group of residents living near current or proposed coal ash dumps.

In Stokes Co., outside of Duke’s Belews Creek Power Plant, we’ve been helping Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup grow in strength and numbers. The group is currently working on a community-led health survey and a county resolution advocating for the safe, permanent cleanup of the ash in their backyards. We plan to work through the new year to ensure that Duke Energy continues supplying bottled water to residents with contaminated wells and ultimately pays for a permanent source of safe water for them.

We will also be watching the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to make sure that no coal ash site is deemed “low-priority” and given an inadequate cleanup plan. And we’ve joined the Southern Environmental Law Center and other state organizations in challenging the deal between Duke Energy and DEQ that lets the utility giant pay just $7 million to settle water pollution problems at all 14 of its coal-fired power plants.

Coal Ash Management Continues to Challenge Region

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

Conservation groups in North Carolina, including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this paper, are challenging a settlement between Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality that significantly reduces the $25.1 million fine levied against the company for pollution violations at its Sutton Lake power plant near Wilmington, N.C.

The settlement requires the company to pay a much smaller fine of $7 million and, according to a statement issued by Duke Energy, the arrangement “resolves former, current and future groundwater issues at all 14 North Carolina coal facilities, including the retired Sutton plant.” In addition to the fine, the settlement also requires Duke to accelerate cleanup at four of these sites, each of which has documented contamination outside Duke’s property lines.

Also in North Carolina, a U.S. District Court judge sided with environmental groups in dismissing Duke Energy’s challenge to their lawsuit over water pollution and safety violations at Duke’s retired Buck Power Plant near Salisbury.

In her ruling, Judge Loretta C. Biggs also raised concerns about the DEQ, formerly known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “The court is unable to find that [the agency] was trying diligently or that its state enforcement action was calculated, in good faith, to require compliance with the Clean Water Act,” she wrote.

Finally, the DEQ is required to prepare its recommendations for the state’s coal ash impoundment by Dec. 31. The N.C. Coal Ash Management Commission was set up to advise this process, yet as of late November the commission is unable to reach a quorum due to a challenge to the constitutionality of six of its nine members. Until the challenge to its membership is resolved, the commission will be unable to contribute to the assessment.

In Tennessee, residential wells near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Gallatin Fossil Plant in Sumner County have tested positive for elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen. According to The Tennessean, local residents learned this information in letters from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

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 AppVoices.org/coalash

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

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

coal-ash-alliance-Sept23-8

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.