“I love to turn the switch on and have my lights just like anyone else, but at what cost?”
These are the words of life-long Stokes County resident Annie Brown. She lives near the Dan River, where thousands of tons of coal ash sludge spilled into the waterway in early February after a pipe broke at a shuttered Duke Energy power plant. Her personal story opens At What Cost? — a short film on coal ash contamination and its affects on public health. “If I had known this stuff was toxic, I wouldn’t be living where I’m living now,” said Brown, who “started getting sick when [she] was 22.”
Brown’s story was shared during a June 19 screening of “Coal Ash Stories” — four short films focusing on coal ash, public-health concerns, public policy and ways that communities are responding. About 50 people attended the event, held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville.
Accidents like what happened on the Dan River could occur close to home, Katie Hicks of Clean Water for North Carolina told attendees. At more than 30 sites across the state, coal ash is stored in unlined ponds, held back by earthen dams and posing serious threats to the nearby communities. The waste product left over from burning coal to produce electricity, coal ash contains dozens of concentrated toxins, including arsenic, mercury and lead, that can seep into the groundwater and into nearby waterways, Hicks said.
One of those North Carolina sites is Duke’s South Asheville plant.
In response to environmental concerns in recent years (a dam failure at a Tennessee plant sent millions of gallons of toxic sludge into a river near Kingsport in 2008), Duke Energy has been moving ash from one pond at the Asheville plant and has committed to scooping out the other, said Julie Mayfield, co-director of the Western North Carolina Alliance. Contractors have hauled tons of coal ash from the power plant to the Asheville Regional Airport, where it serves as fill for a runway expansion project.
Located along a well-populated stretch of the French Broad River, the Asheville ponds continue to carry the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “high hazard” rating, said Joan Walker, High Risk Energy Coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. A dam failure could be catastrophic. “Now that the impoundments are being emptied, we still don’t know what the future holds,” Walker said. “They could line [them] and put ash right back in.”
That is why organizers are urging area residents to act now, she said. “We want to focus on our state legislature, where we have [a pending] coal ash bill. We want people to ask their elected officials to fix critical parts of the bill, like the provisions that could allow some polluting sites to be capped and left in place,” she said. “But capping in place doesn’t stop these sites from polluting in perpetuity and wouldn’t have prevented the Dan River disaster.”
Walker noted, “Coal ash now coats the bottom of the Dan River for 70 miles.”
N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, introduced and is co-sponsoring S.B. 729 — the Coal Ash Managment Act of 2014.
“We want to make sure that legislation cleans up all of North Carolina’s polluting coal ash sites,” Walker said. “Though the bill has been called a ‘clean-up bill,’ it doesn’t ensure full clean up at 10 dangerous and polluting coal ash sites across the state. We want a strong rule that is going to address the sites to make sure pollution stops.
“One way to find out more is through the Southern Coal Ash Waste website,” she said. “To get involved, we are hoping people utilize the ‘take action’ section at www.southeastcoalash.org.”
The tour documentaries were An Ill Wind, Coal Ash Chronicles, Downwind and Downstream and At What Cost? Co-presenters and collaborating organizations include Working Films, Appalachian Voices, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Mountain People’s Assembly, Clean Water for N.C., Western North Carolina Alliance, Earthjustice and Asheville Beyond Coal.