Posts Tagged ‘North Carolina’

About gray matter: One artist’s experience with the health impacts of coal ash

Friday, September 5th, 2014 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note }Today’s guest to the Front Porch is artist Caroline Armijo, who has seen too many friends and family die from cancer she suspects was caused by a toxic coal ash pit in her North Carolina community. This originally appeared on Caroline’s website.

Caroline Armijo lives in Stokes County and is speaking out about the health threat of Duke Energy's massive coal ash pit in her community.

Caroline Armijo lives in Stokes County and is speaking out about the health threat of Duke Energy’s massive coal ash pit in her community.

“Gray Matter” is the first piece I created for a series I started in 2010. I began working on Gray Matter a couple of days before my friend was about to undergo her second brain surgery of the summer. I was worried. I promised her that I would pray for her. And I did. Day and night. It felt like an obsession. And my faith was faltering. A couple of weeks earlier, I had prayed all week for Hansel, my childhood neighbor, who never recovered from a biopsy on his brain tumor. A few days later, my aunt’s sister died of a rare form of leukemia within ten days of learning she had it. I was overwhelmed.

The next morning I woke to a story on the radio about the fish in the Potomac River. I thought, “It’s the water.” And a simple web search lead me to discovering the connection between coal ash and cancer. It also led me to Dennis Lemly, a professor at Wake Forest University, who has been studying the fish population for thirty years. He has written countless reports and pleas to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Obviously, fish are an important look at how water impacts the human health system. But no one was making an obvious connection that, yes, in fact, the people in the community are sick. So I emailed and told him.

In my five years in Washington D.C., I have only known three people with cancer, and only one of those have died. In the last six months alone, I have known five people who have died from my hometown in Stokes County, North Carolina.
Coal ash gives you a one in fifty chance of getting cancer. Unfortunately, the statistics seem to be much worse at home than estimated in the published reports. When I discussed this with a friend from home, she said that her prayer group included two people with cancer out of four.

Maybe I feel so strongly about this after watching my dad’s twin sister, Cheryl, fight a courageous battle against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She passed away in April 2006, after I moved to D.C. the previous year. I was six hours away from my family. It was one of the hardest things I have ever dealt with.

A couple of years later, her neighbor Jackie, from directly across the street, died of the exact same kind of cancer. They could see each other’s houses from their front windows. Cancer is not contagious. What are the chances of that happening?

"Gray Matter," by Caroline Armijo.

“Gray Matter,” by Caroline Armijo.

I did what I do when I don’t know what else to do. I began working on an art project that ultimately became Gray Matter. I had partially excavated/destroyed the book, Your God Is Too Small, a couple of years ago; it was in two pieces and looked like a couple of capital D’s. I went to the studio, picked up the book, gathered my scalpel (a real surgeon’s knife) and blades, and headed home with all of these lost loved ones in my mind.

On 10/10/10, while thousands of organizations around the world gathered to do something for the environment, I worked on my environmental justice art. Mom and I spent the entire day in Friendship and didn’t use the car – which is hard for Stokes County. I went to the graveyard and rubbed the gravestones of our church members who had passed away from cancer. I was not able to include Hansel, because his headstone was not up yet. But I did include his best friend, whom he loved to fish with, and died a few years earlier from a brain stem tumor. In all, I included seven members of Friendship, plus a rubbing of my friend Anita‘s grave.

And after I sewed together the two sides of the book, I needed something to give the book structure. Tucked between the pages of the original book are the rolls of collected grave rubbings.

Anita, more than any other person in the community, likely knew the full impact of cancer. She was the third generation to run her family funeral home. She was also a member of the aforementioned prayer group, which gathered weekly. As I look back of the dates, I have to think that her final prayer was answered. On June 21, the EPA decided to receive petitions regarding the unregulated coal ash. Anita passed away on June 22.

Should the federal government regulate coal ash? Or let industry continue to regulate it, which means do nothing? The strictest regulation would require coal ash to be cleaned up–put into lined ponds, instead of the current unlined ponds that have leaked in the local water systems — ensuring that a freak accident won’t result in a flood in Walnut Cove or Pine Hall, as predicted in this EPA report. That also means the coal ash can’t fly around through the air.

So I am optimistic that the thousands and thousands of prayers flowing from Stokes County, and throughout the rest of the country, over the years have finally been heard. Now we have an opportunity (maybe an obligation) to follow through with our requests. Please sign this petition in support of the full cleanup and closure of coal ash dumps in the Belews Creek community.

After last-minute compromise, N.C. legislature passes coal ash bill

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014 - posted by brian
Duke Energy's retired Dan River coal plant, where a massive coal ash spill in February spurred legislative action.

Duke Energy’s retired Dan River coal plant, where a massive coal ash spill in February spurred legislative action.

However dysfunctional, the North Carolina General Assembly always seems to come together in the end.

On Wednesday afternoon, the N.C. House voted 83 – 14 in favor of a compromise bill on what to do about the state’s coal ash problem. A few hours later, the Senate followed suit. The bill will now go to the governor.

Here’s what Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams said about the bill:

“A far cry from the historic bill lawmakers have touted, this plan chooses just four communities out of 14 across the state to be cleaned up in this decade. The others, our lawmakers have decided, will have to wait for a commission of political appointees to decide their fate.”

We’ll skip the self-congratulatory cheerleading coming out of Raleigh and share more of the finer details in the days and weeks ahead. But suffice it to say, by overlooking the present threats that most of the coal ash sites in the state pose, the final bill comes nowhere close to fulfilling lawmakers’ promises to protect North Carolina’s communities in the wake of the Dan River spill.

Learn more about the bill here.

Exploring Mountain Bogs

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

By Amber Ellis

If you take one of The Nature Conservancy’s monthly hikes through Bluff Mountain Preserve in Ashe County, N.C., you’ll experience a rare mountain fen firsthand. Walking along the trail, the trees suddenly give way to a clearing closely resembling a meadow of grasses and flowers. Meadows are rarely found at 4,500 feet elevation, however, and do not typically swallow your boots in mud.

Wetlands such as bogs and fens are some of the rarest natural communities across central and southern Appalachia. Bogs are defined by their nutrient-poor, acidic and saturated soil, and are usually found in depressions or low-lying areas filled by precipitation. Mosses and shrubs thrive while mature trees are rare.

In Ashe County, N.C., the oak forests of Bluff Mountain give way to a rare mountain fen. Photographer Kim Hadley, who captured this image, began volunteering with The Nature Conservancy to help care for the area in 2004.

In Ashe County, N.C., the oak forests of Bluff Mountain give way to a rare mountain fen. Photographer Kim Hadley, who captured this image, began volunteering with The Nature Conservancy to help care for the area in 2004.

A fen is essentially a bog fed by groundwater. This makes them slightly less acidic, more nutrient-rich and home to a wider variety of grasses than bogs, accounting for the characteristic meadow-like look of fens.

Functionally, however, fens and bogs are nearly identical. Because of this similarity, high-elevation, isolated wetlands are often collectively referred to as “bogs.”

Although mountain bogs represent less than one percent of the southern Appalachian landscape, they are highly functional pockets of immense ecological and practical importance. Not only are the bogs biodiversity hotspots for rare and specially adapted species such as the mountain sweet pitcher plant and the Carolina northern flying squirrel, they also provide natural water-level controls for surrounding communities. Bogs act as buffers in times of both drought and flood, replenishing springs during dry spells and catching overflow during heavy rain.

This consistent water supply attracts critters such as the water shrew, a small mammal whose hairy hind feet allow it to run or glide across the water without getting stuck in the mud. Mountain bogs are also habitats to many game species as well as species of conservation concern. This means wildlife such as the wood duck and ruffed grouse live alongside rare plants and amphibians such as bunched arrowhead and numerous salamander species.

In North Carolina, the smallness and isolation of these mountain bogs is of particular importance in light of recently proposed wetland regulation updates from the state legislature. Although wetlands are generally protected under the federal Clean Water Act, regulation of isolated wetlands is left up to the state. The current draft legislation would increase the size required for a wetland area to trigger environmental protection. Given that mountain bogs are typically small, the proposed regulations would make them particularly vulnerable to development.

The importance of bogs has not gone unnoticed, however, and the proposed legislation makes conservation efforts all the more relevant. In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began work on the Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge to protect, restore and manage the unique wildlife habitats. Promoting these goals will involve connecting people to nature and developing landscape-level conservation and conservation partnerships. The proposed refuge would ultimately include as many as 23,000 acres spread across thirty sites in western North Carolina and East Tennessee.

According to Gary Peeples, the man spearheading the proposal from the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Asheville, N.C., the refuge is a chance to “make a big step forward when it comes to bog conservation … especially in the conservation of those federally threatened and endangered plants and animals.”

Conservation areas for the project include the bog itself, the surrounding upland area, and when applicable, an area upstream. The proposal has already received federal approval and widespread support from local nonprofits and private landowners, but, Peeples says, “the biggest limiting factor right now is money to purchase land.”

A volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the population health of the elusive and endangered Appalachian mountain bog turtle. Photo courtesy of Gary Peeples of USFWS

A volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the population health of the elusive and endangered Appalachian mountain bog turtle. Photo courtesy of Gary Peeples of USFWS

This means the project will happen in pieces, with land parcels being bought as funding is approved by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Peeples points out, though, that “the bigger picture here is the conservation of the bogs,” and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also works with landowners who wish to manage and conserve their privately owned bogs apart from the National Wildlife Refuge.

Once acquired wetlands in the refuge are stable enough to allow public access, recreational activities such as hunting, birdwatching and wildlife photography will take priority. The goal is to ensure the health and survival of bog ecosystems for the sake of their inhabitants as well as for curious naturalists, eager to slog through the mud and discover one of the regions’ rarest gems.

Endangered Inhabitants of the Mountain Bogs

Bog Turtle


The mountain bogs of Southern Appalachia are one of the bog turtle’s few remaining homes. As North America’s tiniest turtles, they are prized in the pet world for their small size and distinctive coloring — particularly the bright orange patches on either side of their head.

Measuring only 3 – 4.5 inches long, bog turtles feed mainly on seeds, insect larvae, beetles and millipedes and are much more concerned with avoiding predators than being one. Though bog turtles have multiple natural predators, human impact through poaching and habitat loss are responsible for their status as a critically endangered species.

Rock Gnome Lichen


High in the fog of lofty elevations, deep in the mists of river gorges, or nestled in the dampness of mountains — these are some of the only bogs are the only places one can find the rock gnome lichen, a fungus unique to Southern Appalachia. Clustering on vertical rock faces, the blue-gray lichen gets its nutrients from water and sunlight and reproduces asexually at a very slow rate. Trampling and soil erosion from hikers and rock-climbers contribute to the rock gnome lichen’s endangered status. Habitat destruction due to invasive insects killing trees that shade the lichen is also a major cause.

Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant


Found in only a few counties along the western North Carolina/ South Carolina border, the endangered Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant is specifically adapted to the low-nutrient environment of mountain bogs. Like most plants, the Mountain Sweet has photosynthetic leaves that convert the sun’s energy into usable sugars. However, while most plants use their roots to gather additional nutrients from surrounding soil, a bog offers few freebies, so the Mountain Sweet opts for a more lively food source. Small, nectar-seeking insects are lured into the plant’s pitcher organ, an upright, leafy tube lined with hairs, and greeted with a bath of enzyme-rich digestive fluids that break down their bodies into the nutrients the plant needs. North Carolina has already claimed the Venus Fly Trap as the state’s official carnivorous plant, but the Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant stands out as a regional treasure.

Full Disclosure?

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

As North Carolina considers its first natural gas drilling rules, a survey of the region shows how states are — and aren’t — regulating fracking

By Molly Moore

When Denise der Garabedian heard that fracking could come to the area near her home in the Smoky Mountains of Cherokee County, N.C., she began researching the controversial method of gas drilling and talking to neighbors who had seen the effects of the fracking boom in other states. The more she learned, the more determined she became to speak out against the practice.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, involves drilling a well into shale rock formations and injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture the rock, prop open the fissures, and then withdraw the natural gas and less than half of the fracking fluids. The rest of the fracking brine remains underground, where some scientists are concerned that it could migrate into groundwater.

The relative abundance of natural gas has made it a cheap source of power. But as shale gas production has skyrocketed — from 169,026 million cubic feet in 2007 to 902,405 in 2012 — concerns about water contamination have grown.

In January, an Associated Press investigation of water contamination in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Texas found that some states have confirmed a connection between oil and gas drilling and well-water contamination.

Independent research points to similar conclusions. “A range of studies from across the United States present strong evidence that groundwater contamination occurs and is more likely to occur close to drilling sites,” states a compendium of research on fracking’s environmental and public health effects assembled by the Concerned Health Professionals of New York in July. Last year, a Duke University study in northeastern Pennsylvania found that higher levels of methane in wells near gas drilling sites were linked to shale gas extraction.

Proponents of fracking point to alternate studies — such as one conducted by the drilling company Cabot Oil and Gas — that they say disprove the conclusions drawn from other scientific research.

Still, there is no overarching scientific statement on how frequently fracking affects drinking water supplies or how those chemicals impact public health. In 2010, Congress ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a comprehensive study on how fracking affects groundwater, but the release date for that study was pushed back from 2014 to 2016.

While they wait for answers, Appalachian states are moving ahead with fracking, their paths determined by a mix of geological happenstance, political will and citizen pressure. State-level decisions are even more important given a lack of federal oversight — fracking is exempt from federal laws that typically protect water, air and public health, such as the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Safe Drinking Water Acts. The industry is even exempt from Department of Transportation rules that set safety standards for the number of hours truck drivers can work. When states begin fracking, they venture into the Wild West of regulation.

Entering the Fracking Frontier

In 2012, the North Carolina legislature overturned the state’s fracking moratorium and created the Mining and Energy Commission to draft the state’s first natural gas drilling rules. Now, as the legislature accelerates the rulemaking process, the commission is at the center of a statewide debate.

“When the MEC formed and set out on this path they said they were going to make the strongest and most restrictive rules in the nation and since then everything they’ve done has been a step back from that,” says Mary MacLean Asbill, a North Carolina attorney with the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center.


The MEC proposals, released in July, would prohibit gas companies from injecting fracking waste underground, but would allow open waste pits. In fact, Asbill says, the draft rules don’t adequately address many areas of concern, including air emissions, liability for spills and baseline water quality testing to determine whether any water pollution problems are pre-existing.

The fracking industry’s exemption from the Clean Water Act also means that companies are not federally required to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process. Instead, states have discretion to set chemical disclosure standards. North Carolina’s MEC proposals provide some safeguards on this front, but in June the state legislature passed a law making it a misdemeanor for anyone to reveal fracking chemical trade secrets, including doctors who would be granted access to the information in case of emergency.

In August and September, the commission is planning to hold public hearings to solicit input on the draft rules. Three hearings are scheduled in the Piedmont, and, after pressure from western North Carolina residents, the commission agreed to hold a fourth in the mountain town of Cullowhee.

Attention is centered on the natural gas potential of the Deep River and Dan River basins, where test drilling could begin this fall, but the state environmental agency also plans to test for indications of gas in seven western counties.

In the meantime, a recently formed grassroots organization called Coalition Against Fracking in Western North Carolina is organizing town hall meetings and urging local governments to take a stand against the practice. In July, several local governments stated their opposition to fracking, beginning with the Swain County Commission and the town of Webster in Jackson County. The North Carolina law passed in June invalidates local ordinances regarding fracking, but in other parts of the country such ordinances are gaining ground. New York’s top state court recently ruled that towns could use zoning laws to ban fracking near their borders.

As citizens in the western counties of North Carolina prepare for the public comment hearing in September, Denise der Garabedian will keep encouraging her neighbors to pay attention during the rulemaking process and beyond. “I know I can’t save the world, but I might be able to save my backyard and my neighbors’ maybe,” she says.

Science of Setbacks

Along with New York and Pennsylvania, West Virginia has been at the epicenter of fracking in the Eastern United States for a half-dozen years. The Associated Press reported that from 2009 to 2013, the state received roughly 122 complaints that drilling contaminated water wells and found that “in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action.”

To address the boom, West Virginia passed a new set of rules in 2011 that environmental and property-rights groups criticized as being too weak; the West Virginia Citizens Action Group called them a “Christmas gift to drillers.”

Among their concerns, critics said that the buffer zones — designed to protect residents and water supplies from air and water pollution — were insufficient. In a 2013 study, Dr. Michael McCawley, a chairman at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health, found contaminants such as the carcinogen benzene in the air at seven drilling sites. Based on his research, he advised the DEP to stop relying on the boundary zones and instead conduct direct air quality monitoring near the sites.

His study was undertaken because of the 2011 law which required the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to research several aspects of the oil and gas industry, including air pollution, and then use the results to implement additional rules if necessary. After reviewing McCawley’s findings, however, the DEP reported to the legislature that no rule changes were needed. McCawley then took his concerns directly to state legislators in the fall of 2013, where he says he received an encouraging response. He is continuing to pitch the idea to decision-makers in West Virginia and neighboring states.

Wastewater Worries

Although Kentucky and West Virginia share a long border of similarly rolling mountain ridges, their geology is distinct enough that the Bluegrass State hosts far fewer hydraulic fracturing wells. But that may be changing. Recently, successful tests in the state’s northeastern corner have led to more fracking in the area, and applications to drill are increasing.

Tim Joice, water policy director at the nonprofit Kentucky Waterways Alliance, notes that the state’s oil and gas drilling regulations are decades old and do not consider how modern processes could allow gas or fracking fluids to migrate into aquifers or wells.

Essentially, the existing regulations were written to address nitrogen-foam fracturing, not hydraulic fracturing. In much of the state, hydraulic fracturing doesn’t work very well because the high clay content in some of the state’s shale formations absorbs water. So, beginning in 1978, eastern Kentucky drillers began to combine nitrogen and comparatively small amounts of water — roughly 120,000 gallons — with other chemicals and sand to create a briny foam that is then injected underground at high pressure.

Nitrogen-foam wells have the advantage of using less water and producing less chemical-laden brine for disposal. Yet whether a well is fracked with nitrogen foam or hydraulic fracturing fluid, the resulting toxic waste needs to go somewhere. Often, it’s injected back underground in designated wastewater wells, but companies have also dumped the waste into streams and gullies near drilling sites.

When Kentucky Waterways Alliance requested information about complaints of improper disposal of fracking brine from the state, the Kentucky Division of Water responded with a spreadsheet of 360 incidents between January 2012 and May 2014, six of which have resulted in formal violations.

The 200,000-Gallon Question

In Tennessee, the greatest problem with regulations is simple — the rules don’t apply to most drilling operations in the state. Fracking rules the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation passed in 2012 only apply to wells that use more than 200,000 gallons of water. The relatively sparse fracking happening in Tennessee uses the nitrogen process, which uses far less water than the limit, so most operations are exempt from the rules.

“It’s a partial regulatory scheme but they don’t apply it most of the time, so what we’re left with is virtually nothing,” says Anne Davis, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who had recommended stronger regulations. “If you frack with nitrogen you’re not doing more than 200,000 gallons.”

Operations that use more than 200,000 gallons must issue public notice of new fracking operations, test nearby water wells and provide monitoring reports. Fracking operations using less water still need to file a permit stating their intention to frack, but no public notice is required and the permits are not available online. Once drilling is complete, operators are obliged to disclose the chemicals they use, but this requirement only applies to those chemicals that aren’t classified as trade secrets.

Reviewing Regulation

In Virginia, as part of an ongoing review of fracking, a state regulatory advisory committee recently agreed to recommend that the Virginia Gas and Oil Board change state regulations to require full public disclosure of all ingredients in fracking fluids. In their ongoing meetings, the committee also discussed whether baseline groundwater sampling should be required before the agency can authorize drilling and fracking.

As the rules review continues, several natural gas proposals are keeping the issue in the spotlight. Oil and gas companies are interested in fracking the Taylorsville Basin in eastern Virginia, and one Texas company has already leased 84,000 acres. In the George Washington National Forest, which overlies part of the Marcellus Shale formation, the U.S. Forest Service is considering whether to limit hydraulic fracturing in the area.

New pipelines to carry natural gas from the Marcellus Shale through Virginia have also generated controversy. Routes for the three pipeline proposals aren’t final, but some nearby communities are already organizing to express concerns about oil and gas leaks. And Dominion Resources’ proposed 450-mile project would transport natural gas through the George Washington National Forest, which environmental organizations such as Wild Virginia say endangers natural areas and drinking water supplies.

Efforts to expand fracking and natural gas infrastructure in Appalachia are forcing residents and decision-makers to confront basic questions about the role of natural gas in the region. Whether the industry grows will depend on how strongly states adopt energy efficiency and renewable sources of power and how citizens respond to new fracking and pipeline proposals. If the growing movement in western North Carolina is any indication, the future of fracking in Appalachia will be continue to be fraught with controversy.

Correction: This article has been updated to note that less than half of fracking fluids are withdrawn from wells after drilling — more than half remains underground.

New Moth Named to Honor Cherokee

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

The Cherokeea attakullakulla now boasts a name of high distinction. A researcher first described the moth in the 1950s, but it was not until this summer that a team of scientists published a report recognizing it as an unidentified species native to North Carolina and Tennessee. Once a nameless moth drifting through Appalachia, its name honors the environmental stewardship of the Cherokee Nation.

North Carolina Coal Ash Bill Pending

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Amber Ellis

By Brian Sewell

On July 14, the N.C. Senate voted unanimously to reject the state House’s revised version of the Coal Ash Management Plan, which weakened the cleanup requirements in the Senate’s original bill. Now, a committee with members of both chambers must craft a compromise bill.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, who sponsored the Senate bill, said the House-approved bill contained multiple dealbreakers including a provision that could allow Duke Energy more time to close ponds if the utility claimed the timeline was not economically feasible.

While the negotiations have prevented the bill from reaching Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk and could lead to improvements, environmental groups see both versions and their many similarities as being too weak to fully address the state’s coal ash pollution problem.

Both the House and Senate bill would require Duke Energy to close four “high-risk” sites across North Carolina within five years. But deadlines for cleaning up the remaining 10 sites would extend until 2029 or beyond, and sites deemed “low-risk” could be capped in place without installing a liner to protect groundwater.

In June, the nonprofit organization Waterkeeper Alliance reported that well-water tests at five homes near Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station in Rowan County revealed hexavalent chromium, a potent carcinogen. Still, an amendment to add the Buck plant to the list of “high-risk” sites narrowly failed in the House.

At press time, the committee had not yet negotiated a final bill.

N.C. Circumvents Supreme Court Ruling On Groundwater Contamination

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

By Kimber Ray

Lawsuits filed by citizens exposed to toxic tap water in Asheville, N.C., and Camp Lejeune Marine Corp Base, N.C., will now be able to move forward, thanks to legislation signed into law this July by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory. The bill clarifies that the state’s deadline for filing personal injury claims does not apply to cases involving groundwater contamination.

This legislation was proposed in response to a June 9 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against 25 Asheville citizens kept unaware of their polluted water for more than a decade. Citing North Carolina’s 10-year limitation on personal injury lawsuits, a 7-2 majority of the court barred residents from suing CTS Corporation for improperly disposing of toxic waste at the Asheville site from 1959 to 1986.

Because the CTS ruling could impact a separate case regarding contamination at Camp Lejeune, the U.S. Department of Justice had defended CTS. Following the Supreme Court decision, the federal agency unsuccessfully attempted to cite the Asheville case as grounds to dismiss the Camp Lejeune lawsuit.

What do Duke Energy and a messy teenager have in common?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - posted by amy
Dark gray coal ash permeates the soils along the Dan River. Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Dark gray coal ash permeates the soils along the Dan River. Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Nearly six months have passed since news of the Dan River coal ash spill first reached the public in North Carolina. Since that time, Duke Energy has been working slowly to vacuum up the large, readily identifiable deposits of coal ash from the approximately 39,000 tons that spilled. Most of the cleanup has been focused close to the location of the broken pipe and near Danville, Va., where sediment was trapped behind the low Schoolfield Dam.

Nearly six months of work, and a staggering six percent has been recovered – staggering for how little that is. Duke and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was overseeing the work, seem satisfied with this recovery rate and have declared the cleanup complete, leaving behind more than 35,000 tons or slightly more than 90 percent of spilled coal ash in the Dan River.

Let’s look at it from another perspective. Say you ask your teenager to clean up his messy bedroom. He picks up a few articles of dirty clothing from the floor and puts them in the laundry, and calls it quits. “That’s it?” you ask.

The sad truth is the premature ending of the cleanup means the Dan River will forever be sullied by the toxic, dark grey ash that lurks below the surface. Coal ash does not biodegrade. It will remain in the river unless removed.

So, where is the remaining 35,000 tons (130 thousand cubic yards) of ash, and why is it not being removed? One of Duke’s replies has been that such a thin layer exists over such a large area – about 70 miles of river that it’s impractical or nearly impossible to recover. But remember the Kingston, Tenn., disaster that spilled 5.4 million cubic yards (1.4 million tons) of coal ash into the Emory River in 2008? The Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the Kingston coal-fired power plant, worked for six years on the cleanup. Ultimately, TVA removed 3.5 million cubic yards of ash in a 12-month period, with 85 percent of the ash being removed in 10 months. This fact makes Duke Energy’s six percent in six months an outrage and a failure.

Another argument has been that continued dredging will stir up more contamination. This is the same argument that has been used by polluters in other spill sites as justification to quit work before the work is complete. When GE spilled PCBs in the Hudson River between 1947 and 1977, it declared that the cleanup would destroy the river and dry up the local economy. However, dredging in Plattsburgh, N.Y., reduced PCB contamination by 90 percent, did not disrupt the community, and was deemed a huge success.

Copyright Yinan Chen; photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright Yinan Chen; photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Returning to the teenager’s messy bedroom, you ask why he hasn’t cleaned up the rest of the junk. “Well there’s so much dust and grime, if I pick up anything else, it’ll just get everywhere.”

Would you accept that answer? I didn’t think so. Then why are North Carolinians expected to accept such a pitiful cleanup of one of our most treasured rivers. We have fallen far short of even half-assed. Every excuse from Duke Energy is like the little boy crying wolf. Most of the actions they say cannot be done, have been done in other states, and done successfully. How long before someone calls their bluff?

The coal ash bill currently in conference committee to reconcile the differences between the state Senate and House versions doesn’t have a regulatory backbone or enforcement teeth. It fails to stand up to the toxic threat to our citizens, and instead of providing accountability, it continues to accommodate Duke Energy. It actually helps pave the way to relieve Duke of responsibility for real cleanup at all of its coal ash pits. With so much at stake, so much public outcry, documented contamination and national attention, this bill is simply not good enough.

You wouldn’t let the teenager just walk away from the mess in his room. We should not let Duke, or North Carolina legislators, walk away from the state’s coal ash mess.

Hey Duke Energy – Buy a Bigger Dump Truck!

Thursday, July 17th, 2014 - posted by matt

The Perfect Solution to North Carolina’s Coal Ash Crisis

There’s been a lot of controversy about how North Carolina will deal with its coal ash crisis ever since Duke Energy spilled nearly 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River last February. Shortly after the spill, legislative leaders voiced icy determination to pass a bill that would force Duke to quickly clean up its toxic coal ash lagoons and protect the state’s rivers and groundwater from further insults.

The hope that all this tough talk would translate into bold action began to fade last month, however, when the state Senate passed a bill that would allow Duke to use “cap in place” techniques at some (possibly most) of the state’s coal ash lagoons rather than requiring Duke to use the kind of modern landfills that are required for disposing of household garbage.

Then, what little hope remained appeared to be lost in early July when the House passed a bill that would let Duke off the hook on the timelines for even these meager clean-up efforts. Fortunately, the Senate unanimously rejected the House’s anemic bill earlier this week, meaning the differences between the bills will now have to be worked out in a conference committee next week.

But the question remains, how could these tough-talking legislators have been convinced to pursue such a myopic solution to the state’s coal ash woes?

The answer is that Duke’s lobbyists managed to scare legislators by convincing them that it wouldn’t be feasible to move all this coal ash to landfills on a 5, 10, even 15-year timeframe. The centerpiece of their argument is a remarkable analysis [PDF-page 15 in particular] by Duke’s engineers that claims it would take 30 years to move 22 million tons of coal ash at their Marshall Steam Station if a dump truck were to leave every three minutes, 12 hours per day, six days per week.

From the moment it was made public, though, this analysis seemed a little fishy. Duke consumes 4 or 5 million tons of coal every year at the Marshall plant, but it can’t even move 1 million tons per year of coal ash to a landfill? A back of the envelope calculation indicates it would take only a quarter that much time to move the volume of material Duke was talking about with a U-Haul!

So we took a closer look at Duke’s analysis and discovered an astonishing fact: it is based on the assumption that they could only haul 10 tons of coal ash per load, which is roughly the weight you could pull in a trailer with a Ford F-350 pickup. A light bulb went on in my head… what if Duke used a BIGGER truck to haul all that coal ash?


What if, for instance, the company bought a few of those 200-ton rock trucks that mountaintop removal coal companies use to dump waste and debris into stream valleys in Appalachia in order to supply Duke with coal? With that kind of hauling capacity, they could move all the coal ash in the biggest lagoons in the state in a mere 18 months.

Now to be fair, you can’t drive a 200-ton truck on a public road. That means that in the rare cases where there is no place on site to create a landfill it would take longer than 18 months. But even assuming Duke’s lobbyists can’t get an exception to the state’s 40-ton weight limit for light-traffic roads (as apple growers, Christmas tree farmers and many less influential industries in Raleigh have already done), it could still be done three or four times faster than if they were to wear out a Ford F350 pulling one 10-ton trailer at a time.

And just in case you’re concerned about where Duke might possibly acquire such an advanced piece of hardware, rest assured that we checked online and… wow… there are an awful lot of those trucks for sale right here in the great state of North Carolina.

So the final problem to solve is how to pay for Duke’s new dump truck. Now, you might think a $2 million investment in a big old rock truck shouldn’t be a problem for the largest electric utility in the nation, which cleared nearly $3 billion in profits last year. But that’s because you simply don’t understand the mindset of a Duke Energy executive.

The way a Duke executive feels about spending money on hippy-dippy stuff like protecting rivers and drinking water from toxic pollution is a lot like how you or I feel about spending our tax dollars bailing out Wall Street firms whose malfeasance recently crashed the economy.

So here’s our solution: we’ve set up a grassroots fundraising campaign on Crowdrise so that all y’all can help us raise a cool $2 million to buy Duke Energy a shiny new dump truck and, at the same time, ease legislators’ minds about passing a bill that will hold Duke accountable for safely disposing of millions of tons of toxic coal ash.

You’re also invited to a celebration at Duke’s headquarters in Charlotte later this summer where we’ll present them with a check for all of the proceeds. In the unlikely event that Duke refuses the money then we’ll use it to pay for well water testing in communities living near coal ash dumps in North Carolina and to support local groups who are trying to force Duke to clean up the coal ash problem in their neighborhood.

It’s a big win for everyone! Donate today.

Environmental community calls for major changes to North Carolina House’s coal ash bill

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 - posted by cat

Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500,
Donna Lisenby, Waterkeeper Alliance, 704-277-6055,
Monica Embrey, Greenpeace USA, 773-419-0963,

RALEIGH, NC –Environmental groups Appalachian Voices, Cape Fear Riverkeeper, Catawba Riverkeeper, Charlotte Environmental Action, Greenpeace, Haw Riverkeeper, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup (Belews Creek), Winyah Rivers Foundation, Waccamaw Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance are deeply concerned about the North Carolina General Assembly’s proposed coal ash bill, and are calling for major changes today to ensure that it protects all North Carolina residents.

Appalachian Voices, N.C. Riverkeepers and Waterkeepers Alliance, Greenpeace and local community groups agree that while the Proposed House Committee Substitute (PCS) of SB 729 has some positive aspects, it contains the same weaknesses as the version that the Senate passed last week. The bill leaves thousands of North Carolinians exposed to the dangers of Duke Energy’s coal ash sites, failing to guarantee clean up at 10 sites that are currently polluting NC’s groundwater.

The groups challenge the House to strengthen SB729 so that it reflects the urgency needed to solve the coal ash problem and protect the health of North Carolina’s communities. House legislators should amend the bill to:

  • Ensure the full excavation of all—not some—of Duke’s coal ash sites. The only sure way to control the polluting impact of coal ash dumps is to completely remove the ash and ensure that new disposal sites are dry, lined, sited away from waterways and properly monitored. PCS/SB729 implements this measure for only four of Duke’s 14 coal ash sites. The remaining sites would be eligible for “cap-in-place.” This measure covers only the tops of coal ash sites with plastic and dirt, leaving the groundwater below exposed to coal ash contamination as chemicals leach from the dump’s base. Capping in place does not stop pollution problems and would not have prevented the Dan River disaster.
  • Ensure that new disposal facilities are safely managed. Duke’s coal ash must be moved to new sites that are properly managed. Important management practices include liners along the base of storage sites, as well as groundwater monitoring systems to detect leaks. These measures are not new to dump sites: Liner systems are common practice for landfills throughout the country. However, PCS/SB729 leaves avenues by which Duke’s ash could escape these important measures. Sites using coal ash as “structural fill” that contain less than 100,000 tons of ash would not be required to use lined basins or ground-monitoring systems. Coal ash could also be dumped in abandoned mines, bringing the ash in close contact with groundwater.
  • Address illegal discharges for what they are: illegal. U.S. residents are protected from coal ash seeps under the federal Clean Water Act. PCS/SB729, however, allows Duke to legalize seeps by applying for a permit—or implementing undefined “best management practices.” The EPA rejects the notion of best management practices as an adequate measure to address illegal leaks from coal ash ponds. The house bill should be consistent with minimum federal guidelines.
  • Make Duke—not ratepayers—responsible for the costs of cleaning up all coal ash sites. Duke estimates that cleaning up of all its coal ash ponds could cost as much as $10 billion. Research by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis shows that Duke has the financial means to pay these costs. Polling shows that 91% of North Carolinians believe Duke’s shareholders should pay to clean up all the company’s coal ash sites. Yet PCS/SB729 allows Duke to charge ratepayers for cleanup costs by bringing these charges to the North Carolina Utilities Commission for approval. The resulting irony would be that some of the same ratepayers who live under the shadow of Duke’s coal ash pollution could be forced to pay for cleaning it up.

Duke’s coal ash dumps threaten thousands of North Carolina residents, and many residents are already suffering from serious health impacts.

The Associated Press reports that residents living near Duke’s Buck Steam Station in Salisbury face elevated levels of potentially toxic chemicals in their drinking water. Some families have resorted to using bottled water and the surrounding community has suffered from numerous instances of cancer. Buck Steam Station is one of the 10 coal ash sites eligible for cap-in-place under PCS/SB729. The North Carolina General Assembly should stand with people, not polluters, by drafting a new version of PCS/SB729 that properly addresses Duke’s coal ash problem and protects North Carolina’s communities from suffering a fate similar to Dan River.

For more information, visit Appalachian Voices’ web page on coal ash.