N.C. residents decry Duke Energy’s lack of progress on coal ash issues, despite 2016 legislation

View across lake of Duke Energy's Lake Julian plant
View across lake of Duke Energy's Lake Julian plant

From Clean Water For North Carolina:

On Anniversary of Coal Ash Legislation, Impacted Communities Still Have No Solutions

Communities across North Carolina have not seen improvements after legislation passed in 2016 required Duke Energy to provide permanent replacement water sources to residents near coal ash pits, and also made provisions for the company to be able to cap in place many of the largest coal ash pits in the state. One year after Governor Pat McCrory signed House Bill 630 into law, the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash, a network of communities living with or threatened by toxic coal ash, is speaking out about the environmental hazards and injustices they continue to face every day. A two-week social media action has called attention to the reasons that the coal ash threat in North Carolina is far from over. Short, personal videos made by impacted residents can be viewed on Twitter and Facebook by searching for the hashtag #coalash. 

Hundreds of NC residents near Duke Energy’s 14 coal ash storage sites were told by state officials their well water was contaminated during state sampling in 2015, and many have been living on bottled water for more than two years. House Bill 630 forced Duke to provide a more permanent solution for residents on wells within a half mile of each coal ash site, but these projects are still in the planning phase, and no construction has begun. 

Under the legislation, Duke Energy has until October 2018 to complete the projects. Deborah Graham of Salisbury says, “It’s now been 817 days that I’ve been waking up every day, forced to live off of bottled water to drink and to cook with. People just don’t understand what it’s like to have bottled water every day. Coal ash is not over for us.”  Like Graham, many residents have signed up to receive a more permanent solution but are still waiting for construction of water lines to begin. 

For some communities, the legislation didn’t  go far enough to provide them with a permanent solution. Dozens of residents in the rural Semora community are currently only being offered filtration systems for their wells, due to the fact that the McCrory administration approved an arbitrary, low per-household spending limit for Duke Energy to have to provide municipal water. Meanwhile, the company seems likely be allowed to leave more than 19 million tons of toxic coal ash sitting in unlined pits at the Roxboro Steam Station.

“How can it possibly be fair for Duke to save hundreds of millions of dollars by capping coal ash in place, but not be willing to spend a small fraction of that to provide the permanent water supply that we deserve?” Says Lisa Hughes of Semora. “We know that filter systems will do nothing to protect the value of our homes and can’t be counted on as contamination continues to leach out of the coal ash. Only public water lines will give us security and a permanent solution.” 

The filtration system option became even less acceptable to communities after the NC Department of Environmental Quality announced its performance standards for the systems last week. These standards do not hold Duke Energy accountable to get levels of key contaminants such as hexavalent chromium and vanadium below the health advisory levels state toxicologists had determined for the metals. “DEQ is doing the same thing that it did under the last administration, letting Duke Energy get away without living up to its responsibilities and not taking action to protect North Carolina residents from the threats of drinking water contamination,” says Amy Brown of Belmont, North Carolina. “The state’s health screening level for hexavalent chromium is 0.07 parts per billion, established by DHHS, the state’s expert agency for health warnings.  DEQ is letting Duke Energy get away with providing drinking water laced with 10 ppb of hexavalent chromium, almost 150 times the level that DHHS has established for this known carcinogen.”

David Hairston of Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup (near the Belews Creek plant) says “This bill did not help Belews Creek residents. It has become increasingly clear that the filtration systems won’t protect our health, and yet House Bill 630 removed the commitment for real cleanup.” Caroline Armijo adds, “At Belews Creek, we already have a capped in place dry landfill that has created a 250 acre plume with arsenic levels of 108 parts per billion. The groundwater pollution will not be resolved by capping in place, but only worsen with time.”

So far the legislation last year hasn’t helped us here, either,” agreeds Jeri Cruz-Segarra of Arden, near the Asheville plant. “Coal ash is not over for my community. Every time I drive down the street, I pass a lot of land where I have lost 3 friends to cancer.”

Communities also question the shipping of coal ash over long distances to be dumped in new, lined landfills. Residents in Chatham County know that coal ash isn’t over for them, as ash continues to be transported and stored at the Brickhaven site despite a court ruling that the permits for this landfill were issued improperly.  In May, the Department of Environmental Quality joined Charah, Duke’s coal ash management company, in appealing this ruling, and is defending its original permits. So far, 4 million tons of coal ash have been dumped at Brickhaven. Local residents have found spikes in particulates in the air from the trucks and trains carrying coal ash into the area.

ACT Against Coal Ash has been asking the new administration to do more to address communities’ priorities: accelerated access to safe water, safe above-ground storage of all coal ash, and recycling of coal ash where it can be done safely. The Alliance’s Unifying Principles can be viewed at actagainstcoalash.org.

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