On Saturday, July 25, Appalachian Voices and several of our partner organizations facilitated the first statewide gathering of North Carolina communities impacted by coal ash. Residents from across the state, from towns like Goldsboro, Lumberton, and Belmont, and counties such as Lee and Chatham, gathered in Belews Creek. The area is home of one of the state’s largest coal ash ponds as well as a local group fighting for justice in their community, Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup. Citizens told stories of contaminated well water and new ash landfills that threaten their communities. The solidarity and inspiration was felt strongly throughout the room as those most harmed by Duke Energy’s coal ash discussed a set of unifying principles and formed a statewide alliance to better advocate to Duke Energy and the government for their communities’ needs.
Posts Tagged ‘Coal Ash’
While Duke Energy sows seeds of confusion, CEO Lynn Good gets a raise.
Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources continue to confound and confuse families that have the unfortunate luck of living in close proximity to the utility’s coal ash lagoons.
Well testing required by the state’s Coal Ash Management Act has shown unsafe levels of toxic heavy metals in hundreds of drinking water wells near coal ash ponds.
Residents began to receive letters in May from the state health department advising them to not drink or cook with their well water. Soon thereafter, Duke Energy began to offer those who received these notices a gallon of bottled water per day per person.
Beyond the notice and the insufficient supply of bottled water, Duke and the state have not done much to help these citizens process the information that their water is unsafe. In fact, Duke Energy hired experts to contradict the state’s public health officials.
So citizens and county health departments are stepping in to help residents air their frustrations and, hopefully, to receive some answers.
Belmont resident Amy Brown organized a recent community meeting and invited Duke Energy representatives to speak. Part of her community is surrounded by coal ash ponds at Duke’s G.G. Allen plant. The water notice Brown and her neighbors received recommends not using the water for drinking and cooking, but she asks, “How safe would you feel bathing your 2-year-old child in water that you’re being told is unsafe to ingest?”
At the meeting, Duke Energy was met with anger and tough questions from residents who are understandably afraid and concerned. Although Duke representatives agreed to stay until the end of the meeting to answer questions, they quickly left after their presentation, about 30 minutes before the meeting ended.
Another meeting, held in Salisbury, was hosted by the Rowan County Health Department. While the meeting was less contentious, it left residents more confused than assured.
Duke Energy brought coal ash “expert” Lisa Bradley along with them to the Salisbury meeting. Bradley, a toxicologist on the executive committee of the American Coal Ash Association, is known for trying to convince the public that coal ash is safe enough to feed your kids for breakfast.
Bradley insisted that metals like vanadium and chromium are minerals that you can get at your local vitamin shop and therefore are no cause for concern. Bradley’s rhetoric glosses over the fact that chromium changes form easily, sometimes into hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic form of the substance that is often a by-product of industrial processes.
Ken Rudo, the toxicologist from the Department of Health and Human Services, who has been personally calling residents to make sure they heed the “do not drink” notice, called baloney out on Bradley’s presentation as seen in the following video clip (thanks to Waterkeeper Alliance for the footage).
In the background of all this, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good got a raise of $50,000 for, as some of the business coverage framed it, having “confronted a coal ash spill” as if Duke Energy was a victim versus the perpetrator of the spill.
Will Good use the the money to buy some hexavalent chromium and vanadium supplements? Or might she donate that money to the residents whose lives Duke Energy has disrupted so they get more than the measly gallon of water a day the company is currently providing?
Not only do these residents need more clean water; they need clear answers on the future of their water supply and the effect drinking from it may have had on their family’s health.
On Tuesday, Duke Energy announced it plans to excavate coal ash from ponds at three power plant sites in North Carolina, along with two more at its South Carolina facilities.
But the fates of several sites that pose significant threats to drinking water and nearby communities remain unclear.
Duke is already required by North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act to clean up four sites deemed “high-priority” by lawmakers. By recommending additional sites be excavated, Duke is committed to cleaning up ponds at seven of its 14 power plants across the state. That is, as long as the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is on board.
The total amount of coal ash now planned for excavation is 35.4 tons of ash. Duke plans to move the excavated ash to lined landfills or use it as structural fill material.
Although the company has now committed to cleaning up the ash at half of the sites in North Carolina, the majority of the ash polluting the state’s waterways remains largely unaddressed. As for the seven sites not included in today’s announcement, the company says further environmental testing is needed to assess contamination and determine clean up plans.
Importantly, the sites Duke has not committed to excavating are the largest in the state, including the 12.5 million tons of ash at Belews Creek, the 11.5 million tons at G.G. Allen, and the 27 million tons of coal ash stored at the Buck and Marshall plants. That amounts to more than 70 million tons — the bulk of Duke’s coal ash — still sitting in leaking, unlined ponds seeping and discharging into our waterways.
Around these unaddressed sites, nearly 500 households have been warned by the N.C. Department of Health that their well water is unsafe for drinking or to use for cooking due to contamination possibly associated with nearby coal ash ponds.
While Duke’s announcement is welcome news for the communities living near Moncure, Goldsboro, Lumberton and those who rely on the Cape Fear, Neuse and Lumber rivers for drinking water, others worry they’re being left behind and are concerned about potential harm caused by coal ash stored in landfills — and who is responsible for it.
A year and a half after the Dan River spill, Duke is certainly taking steps in the right direction. But there is still much work to be done for the company to prove it is the “good neighbor” it claims to be.
As the company’s coal ash cleanup efforts expand, we have just a few questions: Does Duke plan to leave more than 70 million tons of toxic ash in unlined ponds polluting North Carolina’s waterways? Will the company ensure the health and safety of workers and residents throughout the clean up process?
Until Duke makes an announcement that takes into account the safety of all its current and future neighbors, we’ll hold our applause.
Utility pleads guilty to separate water pollution charges
By Sarah Kellogg
Jeff Keiser and his wife, Kim, have lived in a small neighborhood in Belmont, N.C., near Duke Energy’s G.G. Allen power plant, for 15 years. Although their community is surrounded on three sides by coal ash, the toxic by-product of burning coal, the Keisers have used their tap water just like anyone else. But that changed in late April when they and their neighbors started receiving letters from the state health department advising them not to drink or cook with their water.
“It was pretty frightening for us to hear all of our neighbors getting do not drink letters from the state,” recalls Keiser. “We had been drinking the water with no worry at all, now we’re scared for our health.”
The do-not-drink orders were a result of mandatory water tests conducted by Duke Energy and required by North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act. As of late May, wells had been tested near eleven of Duke’s fourteen coal ash pond locations. Of the 207 wells tested by May —all located within 1,000 feet of the ponds —191 were deemed unsafe to drink. Most of the wells tested high for vanadium or hexavalent chromium, both known carcinogens. The Belmont community received 83 do-not-drink orders, the most of any location.
Duke Energy claims that the elements found in the wells are naturally occurring and not a result of groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds, although the utility agreed to supply affected residents with bottled water until the source of the contamination is determined.
Keiser and other residents feel certain that Duke is to blame for their bad water. “I do feel like it’s their ash ponds that have created this whole mess,” he says. His neighbor, Barbara Morales, who also received a do-not-drink notice, told the L.A. Times, “Duke just won’t admit their coal ash is poisoning my water, but they need to take responsibility.”
Two weeks after the first round of water tests was released, Duke Energy pleaded guilty in federal court to nine violations of the Clean Water Act at five of its North Carolina coal ash sites and agreed to pay a $102 million fine. The lawsuit was unrelated to the well water results, but rather was the result of a federal investigation that began after Duke spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February 2014.
Separate lawsuits against Duke, filed by the state in 2013 for violations of the Clean Water Act at all 14 of the utility’s North Carolina coal ash sites, are still pending.
Duke’s guilty verdict and the do-not-drink orders come on the heels of a controversial wastewater discharge permit renewal for three of Duke Energy’s N.C. plants, including G.G. Allen. The state’s Clean Water Act lawsuits against Duke charge that the utility is violating the discharge permits at all of their plants due to toxic seeps from their coal ash ponds leaking into surface water and drinking water. Although the state is suing Duke Energy for the violations, it issued new draft permits that would make all current and future seeps from the coal ash ponds legal. As of publication, the permits have not been finalized, but hundreds of citizens submitted comments in April urging the state to limit the amount of coal ash pollution Duke Energy can discharge.
In Belmont and other communities, residents continue to process the news that their well water is undrinkable. “If we wanted to move, we’d feel obligated to let the purchasers of the house know about the issue with Duke and the drinking water in our neighborhood,” Keiser reflects. “That is very scary because this is our most valuable asset.”
Is the Obama administration ready to continue modernizing the landmark law?
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the release of its long-awaited Clean Water Rule, which clarifies the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act.
The finalized rule ends a decade of confusion; a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision brought into doubt the definition of “navigable waters,” which the EPA had historically interpreted to include areas connected to waters by tributaries or other smaller streams.
As The Los Angeles Times reports:
Before the new rule, up to 60 percent of American streams and millions of acres of wetlands were potentially overlooked by the Clean Water Act, EPA officials say. One in three Americans … use drinking water affected by these sources that lacked clear protection from pollution before the rule change, according to the agency.
Is the Obama administration ready to continue the trend of strengthening and modernizing the Clean Water Act — the crucial environmental law that came about due to levels of water pollution that seem unfathomable today?
As the EPA pursues updating the Effluent Limitation Guidelines, which provide standards on wastewater discharge from power plants, we hope that is indeed the case. Sixty percent of water pollution comes from coal-fired power plants alone, and these guidelines would also include natural gas and nuclear facilities.
The primary reason the EPA is even updating these guidelines is because clean water groups sued the agency for not having updated the rule since 1982.
These out-of-date standards do not contain federally enforceable limits on toxic heavy metals. Any limits are left for individual states to decide; as a result, 70 percent of current Clean Water Act permits for power plants do not have limits for heavy metals.
Even worse, the water pollution from these plants has become more dangerous since many coal-fired power plants have installed air pollution technology that “scrubs” emissions before they leave the smokestack. This is good news for air quality, but not for water quality. The scrubbed pollution has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is in waste impoundments where these pollutants supposedly “settle” to the bottom. Power plants are then allowed to dump water from these impoundments into our river and lakes, which sometimes serve as drinking water sources.
Heavy metals are dangerous at varying levels to wildlife and human health. The industry is also discovering that the chemicals used in the “scrubbing” process can interact with chemicals from drinking water treatment plants to create trihalomethanes, which have been linked to bladder cancer.
The EPA released draft options of the Effluent Limitation Guidelines in 2013 and received more 160,000 comments, most asking for the strong technological options that would create zero waste. The agency is planning to release the final standard this fall. But there is real concern among clean water advocates that the final rule may not pursue the most technically feasible option for stopping pollution from heavy metals and other chemicals, as required by the Clean Water Act.
We are going to need your help to crank up the pressure on the White House to make sure the EPA listens to us water-drinkers as it works to finalize the rule for this fall. Sign up here to receive updates. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, too.
A plan to “end an era of coal” in Asheville and enter an era of natural gas.
In a surprise announcement that some predicted and many have long advocated for, Duke Energy shared plans today to “end an era of coal” in Asheville, N.C., by retiring the coal-fired power plant that sits on the banks of nearby Lake Julian.
The aging power plant, which began operating in 1964, has been a constant target for Appalachian Voices and many of our allies in North Carolina working to address coal ash pollution and promote investments in cleaner energy.
The company plans to spend around $750 million over the next four or five years to retire the coal plant and replace it with a 650-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant, nearly doubling the current plant’s capacity. The plans also include building solar generation on the site, but it’s unclear how large — or small — the size of the renewable portion of the project will be.
While the news should be celebrated as progress, it also represents another precarious step along a dangerous road that will prolong our region’s over-reliance on fossil fuels and saddle consumers with long-lived investments in natural gas.
Duke, more than any other southeastern utility, has been at the forefront of the coal-to-gas fuel-switching trend, retiring seven of its 14 North Carolina coal plants in the past five years. The utility is also slated to be the largest customer of the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but, in this case, plans to upgrade an existing natural gas pipeline to supply the new plant.
Even though the company has brought on large-scale solar projects in recent years, Duke’s enthusiasm for clean energy doesn’t come close to its eagerness to expand natural gas generation and infrastructure. That fact is reflected in the mixed responses of environmental groups and clean energy advocates to today’s news.
“The retirement of the Asheville Plant is a step in the right direction, but it is a half measure, undermined by continuing reliance on an economically unpredictable and polluting source of power. Duke can do better, and our community deserves better,” a coalition of groups made up of MountainTrue, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance announced in a joint statement. “We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight for clean energy solutions for Western North Carolina.”
According to Duke, electricity demand in the Asheville area has doubled over the past forty years and the Asheville plant is a “must run” facility, meaning it operates around the clock to maintain reliability. But data charted by SNL Energy shows the plant’s capacity factor has been trending down since 2010, likely due to new capacity at the more-economical Cliffside power plant coming online.
Closing the plant will dramatically reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury, and the new natural gas plant will emit about 60 percent less carbon dioxide per-megawatt hour. But its larger generating capacity could mean overall carbon emissions stay about the same.
The cost of retrofitting the plant’s coal ash ponds to comply with the state’s Coal Ash Management Act is sure to have played a role in the decision to retire the plant. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources also cited Duke in February for contaminating groundwater at the facility, which could lead to fines.
The Asheville plant is the only facility out of the four deemed “high priority” by the coal ash law that still burns coal. It is also one of the few still-operating plants involved in the federal lawsuit over coal ash pollution that led Duke to plead guilty to nine misdemeanors under the Clean Water Act.
The case for closing the Asheville coal plant is clear. But Duke must do more to meet its promises to North Carolinians. At a time of tremendous opportunity to expand clean energy, America’s largest electric utility has the obligation and more than enough influence to lead.
Dozens of residents across North Carolina received notices this week telling them not to drink or cook with their well water due to recent tests which show unsafe levels of contaminants that may be associated with coal ash.
As part of North Carolina’s coal ash law enacted last year, Duke Energy is required to test the well water of residents living within 1000 feet of the massive coal ash ponds that dot the state.
For years, the demands of residents in communities next to coal ash ponds and environmental advocates were ignored by Duke and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, despite independent water sampling that showed elevated levels of contaminants. Now, more than a year after the Dan River coal ash spill, water testing results are coming back, giving residents and regulators a clear picture of just how widespread the problem is.
Residents living near 9 of the 14 coal plants across the state have been notified of exceedances of the groundwater standard for concerning metals such as arsenic, chromium, and vanadium. According to DENR, 87 of the 117 wells Duke tested exceeded North Carolina’s groundwater standards for one or more toxic constituents. Some wells also had high levels of constituents that may be naturally occurring in North Carolina soil, such as iron, manganese and pH.
Duke has been quick to latch onto those exceedances as evidence that the contamination is not from their illegally leaking coal ash ponds. But residents who can see coal ash ponds from their yards and have watched Duke’s smokestacks for decades have little doubt why they are now being told “don’t drink the water.”
DENR officials say they will investigate the source of contamination and, if it is linked to coal ash pollution, Duke will be required to provide residents with clean water. But that reassurance is hardly recompense for North Carolinians who may have been unknowingly drinking contaminated water for an unknown amount of time. And until the source is determined, residents will have to foot the bill for bottled water.
Take action now!
Update May 31, 2015:
More residents have received results from their well water tests and 166 well owners out of the 207 wells tested so far have been told not to drink their water.
Duke Energy still denies that their leaking coal ash ponds have contaminated neighbors’ wells, but the company has agreed to supply bottled water to families who have been told that they can not safely drink or cook with their water. Duke is supplying a gallon per person today.
By AV Staff
Duke Energy has agreed to pay $102 million for federal criminal charges stemming from violations of the Clean Water Act at five of its 14 coal ash sites in North Carolina.
The nine misdemeanors cite illegal discharges of coal ash wastewater from holding ponds, as well as equipment and upkeep violations. North Carolina, like the rest of the country, has very few limits on the amount of pollution power plants can directly discharge into waterways. This includes coal ash, which contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and selenium.
According to Duke’s own assessment, 200 seeps at its power plants leak nearly 3 million gallons of polluted water into streams and rivers every year. Prior to the Dan River coal ash spill, even self-reported violations by Duke were not penalized, but in the wake of the ensuing federal investigation, the state began issuing a flurry of citations.
In February and March, the state issued the utility more penalties for groundwater pollution: a $25.1 million fine at its Sutton plant in Wilmington, the largest state penalty ever issued for environmental damages, and citations at a coal ash pond in Asheville, which are still awaiting response from Duke.
Amy Adams, N.C. Campaign Coordinator, 828-262-1500, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, email@example.com
The following is a statement from Amy Adams in response to testimony today by David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, to the House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy regarding “Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act of 2015.” Adams is the lead on Appalachian Voices’ coal ash initiative and is a former supervisor with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“In no way is this bill an ‘improvement’ of the new federal rule for coal ash disposal. In fact, it completely strips away health standards and public access to information, leaving citizens in the dark and vulnerable to ongoing health hazards.
“It’s beyond belief that the head of the agency charged with protecting Virginia’s environment and public welfare is up there in D.C. supporting it.
“There are people whose health is already compromised likely due to decades of coal ash pollution, yet David Paylor is supporting this bill that would shelter industry interests from accountability. As a former agency regulator myself, I can tell you this goes completely against the grain of what a public servant should do.”