Posts Tagged ‘Coal Ash’

How coal ash impacts civil rights

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by sarah

Residents of Walnut Cove have fought to win justice for those who have been harmed by coal ash pollution at the nearby Belews Creek power plant.

Residents of Walnut Cove, N.C., testified about the threats coal ash poses to their community during a hearing organized by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Residents of Walnut Cove, N.C., testified about the threats coal ash poses to their community during a hearing organized by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

March flew by in North Carolina, where coal ash continues to make headlines and the state government continues to make missteps.

Last month, more than 1,500 North Carolinians flocked to the 14 public hearings on coal ash basin closure held by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. The turnout was great, the news coverage was thorough, and the oral comments delivered by residents (many of whom live within 1,500 feet of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds) were pointed and poignant.

Residents commented on a lack of science and data in Duke Energy’s groundwater reports and noted the cozy relationship between Duke, Gov. Pat McCrory and DEQ. They explained why they do not feel safe drinking their well water and demanded that all coal ash sites be made high-priority for cleanup and that no site be capped-in-place. And they shared heart-wrenching stories of family and friends who have passed away or are currently suffering from illnesses associated with exposure to heavy metals.

On the heels of the series of March hearings, the U.S. government added one more critical hearing to North Carolina’s expansive schedule: a hearing on coal ash as it relates to civil rights.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is currently preparing a report for Congress, President Obama, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on coal ash and its impact on civil rights, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. In February, the commission held a hearing in Washington, D.C., where hundreds of coal ash activists and coal ash neighbors from across the country gathered and testified about the impacts coal ash has had on their communities. State advisory committees to the commission also had the opportunity to hold local field hearings, but only two in the nation did, and one of those was in the small town of Walnut Cove, N.C.

This was a big deal for residents of Walnut Cove, who have fought for over three years to make their tragic story known and to win justice for those who have been harmed by Duke’s coal ash pollution at the nearby Belews Creek power plant. In response to the interest in coal ash expressed by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Walnut Cove community showed up in a big way.

Citizens Speak Up

Throughout the day, the Walnut Cove Public Library was packed with local residents and allies. Several community members were featured on the panels, including Tracey Edwards and David Hairston, lifelong residents of Walnut Cove who spoke to their experience of growing up with the coal ash falling like snow and witnessing the alarming rates of illness, especially cancer, and subsequent deaths in their small, rural community.

“Duke Energy promotes poison for profit at the expense of human life,” remarked Edwards. “You can’t drive in any direction from the coal power plant without knowing someone who has cancer.”

“You won’t understand until you’ve lived what we’ve lived and lost what we’ve lost,” Hairston explained. “My only mother is dead, Tracey’s only mother is dead. Who else we gonna lose over the next ten years?”

Long-time volunteer and activist, Caroline Armijo, who grew up in a neighboring town of Walnut Cove, presented on a panel alongside DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder. While Reeder praised DEQ and the McCrory administration for their efforts to clean up coal ash in North Carolina, Armijo made it clear that those efforts were not enough. She cited the pervasive illnesses, and the desire among community members to look at solutions that would last longer and be more protective than lined landfills.

The advisory committee members were attentive and moved by the stories and information presented. They were concerned not just about the health impacts of coal ash, but also the associated health care costs and psychological trauma, repeatedly asking community panelists if anyone is helping them in their plight. Committee Member Thealeeta Monet commented on the shameful lack of mental health care available to coal ash neighbors saying, “You cannot be collateral damage without being damaged.”

To the surprise of the audience, committee member Rick Martinez, who has ties to the conservative John Locke Foundation and the McCrory administration, told Duke Energy’s Mike McIntire that he should tell his superiors that the people of Walnut Cove would not accept anything less than full excavation of the coal ash pond. “Tell your management to start budgeting for that eventuality,” Martinez said, “not just here but throughout the state.”

In addition to the scheduled panelists, around 40 additional community members and allies spoke during the open comment section of the hearing. Some speakers had travelled from other North Carolina communities near to Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, and spoke for both their communities and in solidarity with residents of Walnut Cove. The final speakers of the day were all locals who had lost numerous loved ones to cancer.

Shuntailya Graves, a college student studying to become a biologist brought many in the audience to tears when she listed the cancers that each of her immediate family members have sufferred. Adding to the concerns of health care costs she explained, “My mother was diagnosed with thyroid, ovarian and uterine cancers. She had a full hysterectomy and later was diagnosed with thyroid and brain cancer. She has had nine cancerous brain tumors. Her medicines for a 30-day supply are $1,900. Who is going to pay for that? This all comes from coal ash.”

Vernon Zellers told the commission about losing his wife to brain cancer. The committee chair, Matty Lazo-Chadderton, walked over to give him tissues as he sobbed in front of the crowd. “When am I going to die?” he asked, “Am I next?”

Committee Members Respond

Not only were the committee members clearly moved by the day’s events, but so were the three presidentially appointed members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who sat in the audience. Because of the excitement felt by everyone in the weeks leading up to the hearing, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ chairman, vice-chair and another commission member all journeyed to Walnut Cove to listen to the day’s speakers. Chairman Martin Castro commented that the Walnut Cove hearing was the most powerful he had ever been to, both in content, community engagement, and emotional persuasiveness.

With tears in her eyes, Commissioner Karen Narasaki told the community members, “You have given life to the policy issues that can get so wonky. You have made it clear that in this case, it is just about common sense.”

Castro told the community that he related strongly with their stories, having grown up in an industrial area in a community that also suffered from high rates of cancer.

“Don’t tell me there is not a correlation,” he remarked. “This is not just a constitutional or public policy issue. This is a real life issue. Know your stories did not go unfelt or unnoticed. There is something wrong with the system and we need to figure out how to change the system.”

“You will have an advocate,” he promised, “not just here, but in Washington.”

The hearing was a blessing for the community of Walnut Cove, and not one person left without feeling the sense of sorrow, hope, love, passion and joy that emanated from the day’s speakers. As we continue to fight for justice for the little town next to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant, we can take solace in the knowledge that when residents, DEQ and Duke each presented their testimonies during a federal hearing, the light of truth shone unmistakably bright upon the everyday people who have lived, lost, and fought a Goliath in the shadow of its smokestacks.

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Citizens Show Strength at NC Coal Ash Hearings

Friday, April 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

coal_ash_inavThroughout the month of March, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality held a series of public hearings to gather input on cleanup of the state’s nearly 150 tons of coal ash.

The DEQ scheduled individual meetings for each of the state’s 14 coal-fired power plants and their corresponding coal ash impoundments. At each of the hearings, impacted residents, environmental groups and civil rights champions called upon the DEQ to consider all coal ash impoundments in the state as high or intermediate priority. Those classifications require excavation for cleanup instead of allowing the ash to remain in place with a plastic liner cap installed on top. Currently, the DEQ has ranked the coal ash sites into proposed high, intermediate and low categories, with nearly half of the facilities falling in the intermediate and low priority.

Hundreds of residents packed a series of hearings on coal ash cleanup in North Carolina during March.  Photo by Jimmy Davidson

Hundreds of residents packed a series of hearings on coal ash cleanup in North Carolina during March. Photo by Jimmy Davidson

Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina team worked tirelessly throughout January, February and March with partner groups and the A.C.T. Against Coal Ash coalition to inform residents about the hearings. Thanks to those efforts, nearly all 14 meetings were full, with dozens of citizens providing testimony at each.

David Hairston, a resident near the Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County, lamented the fact that young people in the area are worried about future health impacts. “If your kids lived here, would it be low priority?” he asked the official.

 Our N.C. Field Coordinator Sarah Kellogg worked tirelessly to inform residents and prepare comments to present at the hearings.  Photo by Jamie Goodman

Our N.C. Field Coordinator Sarah Kellogg worked tirelessly to inform residents and prepare comments to present at the hearings. Photo by Jamie Goodman

At the Buck Steam Station meeting held in Salisbury, one resident discussed her concerns about allowing the coal ash impoundments to remain in place, stating that “If that dam were to break, my house would be the first to go.”

Residents living adjacent to the coal facilities also detailed their concerns about water contamination, with some pointing to the state’s Do Not Drink warnings they received last year which were controversially rescinded in early March, shortly after the hearings began.

The final ratings from DEQ are expected to be released May 18. A public comment period held in conjunction with the hearings closes on April 18. Learn more at

DEQ’s “Do Not Drink” reversal elevates coal ash concerns

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016 - posted by brian

Residents are right to be skeptical of the state’s sudden claims that their water has been safe all along.

Update 3/17: After continuous news coverage of the decision to lift “Do Not Drink” warnings, citizens have still not received an adequate explanation from state officials. In-depth posts like this one from the journalist behind Coal Ash Chronicles, Rhiannon Fionn, and this one, from Clean Water for North Carolina explain why the sudden decision is so troubling. Another cause for concern came this week when the N.C. Coal Ash Commission, which was created to promote transparency and restore the public’s confidence in regulatory decisions, was abruptly disbanded.

Take Action: There’s still time for residents of North Carolina to attend a coal ash hearing or submit written comments.

Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality are controlling the narrative of coal ash cleanup and writing off the complaints of citizens most impacted by coal ash pollution. Help us hold them accountable.

Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality are controlling the narrative of coal ash cleanup and writing off the complaints of citizens most impacted by coal ash pollution. Help us hold them accountable.

North Carolina officials owe residents and local officials in Lee County an apology, and they owe every North Carolinian an explanation.

Over the past month, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services have walked back their own recommendation that families in Lee County not drink or cook using water from wells with carcinogens that exceed their own standards.

The water is now safe, they say, and it always has been.

Last November, private wells within a half-mile of open-pit clay mines in the county were tested to collect baseline data. Duke Energy plans to move more than 7 million tons of coal ash from sites in Lumberton and Goldsboro and dispose of it in the abandoned Lee County clay mines.

The results from every well tested showed elevated levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, vanadium or both. So, as they have for hundreds of citizens living near active coal ash ponds across the state, officials made sure affected families in Lee County received the message.

Residents took steps to protect themselves and their children; they bought bottled water, installed filters, and avoided the tap while waiting for further instructions. They did what the experts said to do.

Learn the Truth About Coal Ash.

Imagine their confusion now that those “do not drink” letters have been rescinded. Curious to learn what changed, residents packed a Lee County commissioner’s meeting on Monday where DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and Dr. Randall Williams, the state health director, provided their side of the story but failed to fully address the problem or accept any fault.

Given the opportunity for a public mea culpa, Reeder used misdirection and pointed to levels of the same contaminants in municipal water supplies across the state. Williams told commissioners the standards his department set were “exceedingly cautious.” They’re also apparently irrelevant.

Without actually changing the standards, this decision allows the state to lift “do not drink” warnings issued to hundreds of residents living near coal ash ponds. Many of their wells tested at much higher levels for hexavalent chromium and vanadium than those in Lee County. Meanwhile, the DEQ is hosting hearings across the state this month, where data collected from private wells near coal ash ponds will be used to help determine the risk classifications and closure timelines for those sites.

READ MORE: State reversal on hexavalent chromium in well water an outrage

“There’s going to be hell to pay for somebody at the end of the day who has to explain to people why it was too dangerous to drink two days ago, but today it’s fine,” Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams told WRAL. “You didn’t fix the problem. You lowered the number.”

While top officials at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality have repeatedly shown themselves to be clumsy when it comes to public statements, they always stress that they rely on the facts. But the situation in Lee County, and in other communities grappling with the threat of coal ash, shows the agency’s split-personality and an apparent disagreement on which facts matter and which can be ignored.

“As far as the state of North Carolina is concerned, they can drink their water,” Williams told Lee County commissioners on Monday.

But residents are skeptical of the state’s sudden claims that the water has been safe all along. Debra Baker, a resident of Belmont, N.C., was told nearly a year ago that her water was unsafe to drink due to elevated levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium.

Baker lives next to Duke Energy’s G.G. Allen Plant. When officials tested her well water, the results showed vanadium at 40 times the state’s standard and hexavalent chromium at 13 times the standard. According to Baker:

“I absolutely do not feel safe. [Dr. Kenneth Rudo], the state toxicologist has personally called me and told me not to drink my water. My well is surrounded by the ash, so no I don’t feel that it’s suddenly alright to drink my water just because DEQ and DHHS are suddenly rescinding their do not drink orders. This makes me very afraid for my son and myself. I feel like this decision is just another slap in the face from regulators who are supposed to be protecting us.”

Sign up to attend a coal ash hearing or submit a comment.

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Cleanup Plans for Region’s Coal Ash Cause Concerns

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

On Dec. 31, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality released its recommendations for prioritizing the closure of the state’s 33 coal ash impoundments, as required by law. In a draft report made public prior to the announcement, NCDEQ staff determined that nearly all of the containment ponds had a high potential for risk. Despite this, the recommendations released by the agency assigned a reduced risk level to all sites not already identified as high priority.

The prioritization will determine how quickly Duke Energy must close each facility and what standards they must meet when securing the coal ash. In a statement released on Jan. 6, the Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash — a coalition of community members directly impacted by the state’s coal ash — criticized the agency’s recommendations (see page 22).

NC DEQ will hold public hearings at each of the 14 sites in March.

On Jan. 29, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that the appointment of most members of the independent commission tasked with overseeing these closures was unconstitutional. The fate of the commission is unknown.

In Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power is also closing many of its coal ash containment facilities, as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. On Jan. 14, Dominion was awarded permits to begin draining water from containment ponds at two of its power stations into Quantico Creek, which feeds into the Potomac River and then into the James River. Once drained, Dominion plans to consolidate the coal ash into a single lined pond and seal the toxins in place.

The Southern Environmental Law Center will appeal these permits on behalf of Potomac Riverkeeper Network, claiming that the permits do not require Dominion to adhere to the Clear Water Act or treat the water to remove toxins before dumping it in the rivers.

Similarly, Duke Energy has begun decanting water from the coal ash pond at its Riverbend Steam Station into Mountain Island Lake, a major source of drinking water for the city of Charlotte, N.C.

In other news, roughly half of the three million tons of coal ash at Duke Energy’s power plant in Eden, N.C., is being shipped by rail to a lined landfill in Amelia County, Va. The Eden plant was the source of the spill that dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River on Feb. 2, 2012.

And in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold a hearing on the “civil rights implications of [placing] coal ash disposal facilities near minority and low income communities.”

Editor’s Note: The print version of this article stated that North Carolina had 32 coal ash impoundments. This figure has been corrected to 33, reflecting the additional impoundment at the Roxboro facility announced by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality on Jan. 13.

N.C. Citizens Affected By Coal Ash Speak Out

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016 - posted by interns

Statewide and Unified

Sarah Kellogg of Appalachian Voices speaks at an ACT Agasint Coal Ash press conference.

Sarah Kellogg of Appalachian Voices speaks at an ACT Agasint Coal Ash press conference.

In North Carolina, a remarkable coalition of citizens directly impacted by coal ash is proposing a better path forward, one which will force Duke Energy to clean up its decades of toxic coal ash without dumping it on any other communities.

The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash formed in late July, and since then, the group has brought public attention to the need for proper coal ash cleanup. ACT Against Coal Ash has also created a space for residents whose health, water and homes have been harmed by Duke’s coal ash to find solidarity and support. Appalachian Voices was integral to the formation of the Alliance and we continue to co-facilitate ACT and work with partners to include more affected communities.

ACT Against Coal Ash started off the new year by releasing a set of unifying principles that call on Duke Energy and North Carolina decision makers to put the people most impacted by coal ash first. The principles demand transparency and effective coal ash cleanup that keeps the ash on Duke’s property instead of moving it to new communities. The principles also insist that Duke’s neighbors be permanently supplied with safe drinking water and be compensated for lost property values and health care costs, along with other common sense demands.

In March, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality will hold public hearings near coal ash sites across the state. Read more about the Alliance at and find out how to join us at the upcoming public hearings at

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

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016 - posted by cat

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.”


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.”


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.