Point of View

Coal ash, fish tales and the legacy we’ll leave in NC

July 5, 2014 


The Broad River in Cleveland County, NC


In a recent conversation, my neighbor told of how his grandfather would shovel the ashes out of the coal stove in the mornings and spread them over the drive. The solid clinkers mixed in with the gravel driveway surface just fine.

Inexpensive and readily available, coal- and wood-burning stoves provided energy to heat a home and cook the meals. Now, most of our homes have electricity. However, coal is still being burned to create the electricity we need. What we may not realize is that, just like the old in-home coal stoves, steam-powered electric generators also leave us with the ash and residue byproducts that must be disposed of.

Our technology in the energy field has not come a long way since our grandfathers’ time. The ash is still basically dumped onto the ground – well, not quite. A lot of it is poured back into the earth in the form of large holding ponds or “lagoons.”

The steam plant in Cliffside is storing approximately 1.6 billion gallons of ash, sludge and liquid in its coal ash ponds. All of this is perched on the banks of the Broad River. But these earthen storage lagoons cannot be permanent, no matter how well-engineered. Earthen dams with massive amounts of hydraulic pressure behind them inevitably leak. Whether in a catastrophic failure or gradually through smaller leaks, sooner or later all of this wastewater will seep into the surrounding earth and waters if it is not removed.

I am not privy to the technical details of how these storage facilities were built or how they are used and maintained. Local conservation groups have found numerous unpermitted flows, seeps, leaks and channels around the ash ponds. Toxins such as arsenic have been found in the wastewater.

Also, there is something called an “engineered discharge from the toe-drains of the ash settling basins” that flow directly into the Broad River. Well, this doesn’t sound good. A toe-drain collects seepage from the bottom of the pond, where the heavy metals settle. An engineered discharge means that the planners of the facility designed the system to slowly dump these toxic wastes into our river.

Duke Energy has recently agreed to remove the coal ash from two nearby facilities in Mountain Island and Asheville, beside the Catawba and French Broad rivers. What about Cliffside? Is our Broad River any less valuable than these other rivers?

The Broad River, especially in the foothills and upper Piedmont near Cliffside, is an exceptionally beautiful and ecologically diverse natural resource. I have been swimming, canoeing and fishing this area of the river for 25 years. The swiftly flowing river is cool and clear. Moss-covered rocks in the shallows are like a lush carpet under bare feet on a hot summer’s afternoon wade.

One late spring day last year, I had the best day fishing there ever – caught 12 small mouth bass, five of which weighed over 3 pounds each. The fish population is healthy, but are the fish? I had lunch with an “old-timer” fellow fisherman a few years ago in Boiling Springs. We traded fish tales and pleasurable memories of our mutual passion, agreeing that the fishing there was some of the best around.

He said, “I don’t eat the fish out of the river.” So I asked, “Well, you must enjoy eating fish if you are such an avid fisherman?” “These fish,” he replied, “are contaminated from the coal plant up in Cliffside.”

This hit me hard! All those years fishing, I hadn’t even thought about it. I did not ask him for details, but I rarely bring home the fish I catch there now.

A bill has been introduced in the N.C. Senate that would leave the fate of coal ash ponds to a commission, appointed by the N.C. General Assembly and the governor. Duke Power, DENR, N.C. politicians shouldn’t pick and choose which of our rivers and lakes should be kept clean. Let’s go ahead and remove these waste sites from all of our N.C. waterways and clean them up for our future.

I’d like to become the old-timer who can say with confidence to the young fisherman, “Yes, these are great fishing waters, and the fish are good to eat.”

David Caldwell of Lawndale is a member of the Broad River Paddle Club.

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