Durham News: Opinion

June 2, 2014

Jessica Nakell Burroughs: Our coal ash dilemma: What’s in the goblet?

There’s a scene in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” where the wise and good Professor Dumbledore drinks an emerald liquid, partially to quench a great thirst.

There’s a scene in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” where the wise and good Professor Dumbledore drinks an emerald liquid, partially to quench a great thirst. The more Dumbledore drinks, however, the thirstier, sicker, and more crazed he becomes. I read this scene only a few weeks ago, to keep up with my 8-year old son who is transfixed by the Harry Potter series. And, although I try to push this sinister scene from my head, it keeps returning as I read the latest news headlines.

First, there was the January news about the Elk River chemical spill, which resulted in several days of unusable water for 300,000 West Virginians. Next, came February’s coal ash spill into the Dan River, a short 56 miles from my house, which is still making front-page news in North Carolina. And now we hear that Duke Energy has illegally pumped wastewater from two coal-ash ponds at its Chatham County plant into the Cape Fear River.

I am neither a scientist nor a politician, so I cannot speak to the larger political landscape or scientific ramifications of these accidents. I can only speak to how this directly impacts North Carolina families. As a mother, one of my primary duties is to ensure that my sons get enough water to drink. But now, every time I fill up my sons’ water glasses, I pause and wonder: Is this drinking water safe and clean? Or, am I giving my children water that will make them sick like Dumbledore?

Coal ash contains heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and zinc that, when ingested, can cause cancer, developmental delays and behavioral problems. Over 30,000 tons of this coal ash was released into the Dan River when the storm pipe under one of Duke Energy’s closed power plants ruptured. Scientists are worried about the long-term impact of the metals bound to this coal ash on the environment and on wildlife up and down the food chain. Although they do not yet know the full impact of these contaminants, we mothers cannot afford to be taking risks with our children.

The job of parents is to protect our children; the job of elected officials and state regulators should be to protect the American people. Why are North Carolina’s politicians not doing their job, when we are working our hardest to do ours? What is the point of having regulatory agencies to protect us, when they have been so under-funded that they are powerless or that their mission statements are changed from protecting the public to protecting polluters?

Duke Energy owns 14 coal-fired power plants in North Carolina; the ash ponds around every single one of these plants contain elements in concentrations above state groundwater standards. Many of these unlined earthen lagoons have dams rated as highly hazardous, and all of the lagoons leak. Unless we demand change, Duke Energy, state legislators, and Gov. McCrory will keep the toxic coal ash in unlined lagoons forever.

But, there is hope – we can look to our neighbor South Carolina for ideas on how to clean up coal ash lagoons. Legal action by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, and other local groups has led to a commitment from South Carolina’s utilities to recycle their coal ash or store it dry in safer, lined storage away from waterways. Gov. McCrory needs to tell Duke Energy to follow South Carolina’s lead by moving North Carolina’s coal ash away from our drinking-water sources.

Each time that Harry Potter magically filled his beloved professor’s goblet with clean water, the clean water would vanish so that Dumbledore had to drink the toxic water that made him sicker and sicker. Will our goblet contain the clean water? Or, will it contain the toxic kind? The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Jessica Nakell Burroughs is a Durham mother of two and a member of MomsRising.org, a grassroots organization.

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