Grim-faced opponents of coal ash filed into a Lee County auditorium Monday in a mock funeral procession, bearing a black cardboard casket and chanting “Amazing Grace,” some dressed in black mourning clothes.
Thus began the first of two public hearings on issuing state permits to allow Duke Energy to store toxic coal ash in perpetuity in two landfills in the state’s rural midsection.
To hoots, cheers and applause from about 140 people in the audience, local residents issued dire warnings of birth defects, cancers, fish kills and livestock deformities if Charlotte-based Duke is allowed to store its ash here.
Not one of the 39 people who spoke during the two-hour hearing supported the landfills.
“Everyone out here is going to lose the value of their property,” predicted Cindy Simpson, a Lee County resident. “After it kills us, what are we going to do?”
One “speaker” stood mutely for her allotted three minutes at the podium with duct tape over her mouth in a symbolic protest against Duke’s coal ash strategy. Others read statements, with trembling voices or barely contained outrage.
“The bullying of this community and the social injustice of the placement of this dump is not acceptable,” speaker Debbie Hall said. “This certainly reeks of dirty industry and dirty money.”
Monday’s hearing in the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center in Sanford will be followed by a hearing Thursday in Pittsboro, near the site of the other proposed landfill.
The pair of proposed sites would hold as much as 20 million tons, with the first 2.9 million tons to be moved over about 18 months by dump truck and rail car.
The purpose of the hearings, held by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, addresses technical issues, such as the potential effects of coal ash storage on nearby streams and wetlands.
Duke is contending with more than 150 million tons of ash that’s seeping arsenic and other heavy metals into groundwater at all 14 locations where the ash has been accumulating for decades at power plant sites in the state.
Two companies, Charah and subsidiary Green Meadow, are seeking DENR permits to bury the ash at the Colon mine site in Lee County and the Brickhaven mine site in Chatham County. The two companies applied last fall for permits for coal ash reuse, for modifying existing mining permits, and for water-quality certifications.
Lee changes position
Lee County officials had initially opposed the landfill but recently switched positions, agreeing not to challenge the permit application in exchange for a $12 million payment from Duke. Chatham County officials have passed a resolution against the landfill and are still assessing their strategy.
“We’ve had everyone in our state sell us out,” said another speaker, Debra Champion. “We need you, we need DENR. You are our last recourse. Please don’t let us down.”
Duke had resisted storing ash in landfills for years, until the state legislature last year identified four Duke coal ash sites as high priority for excavation and landfill storage.
The ash collecting at the four high-priority sites has to be excavated by August 2019, under the state’s 2014 coal ash cleanup law.
The legislature also created the Coal Ash Management Commission to prioritize Duke’s remaining ash for landfills or for draining and storage in dry form.
Modern landfills require impermeable liners, leachate monitoring and groundwater analysis. But opponents repeatedly said the high-density polyethylene liners will leak eventually.
Critics dismiss Duke’s projection, based on an industry analysis, that the protective barriers could last at least 450 years, roughly equivalent to the amount of time that has passed since the Lost Colony disappeared on Roanoke Island.
Opponents insist Duke should quarantine the ash on company property instead of transferring the legal and health risks to local communities.
They also urged DENR officials to at least require baseline water testing before the ash is stored in order to track future water contamination.
“This is not a mine reclamation,” said speaker Keely Wood. “This is transferring of responsibility to a toxic dump.”
Organizing the opposition are Clean Water for North Carolina, Haw River Assembly, EnvironmentaLEE, Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dump, NC WARN and the Lee County chapter of the NAACP.
Still, the safety of landfills for coal ash storage has been accepted by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the organization representing a dozen environmental groups in their four-year legal battle to clean up Duke’s ash pits.
SELC represents the Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Cape Fear River Watch and Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, none of which sent a speaker to Monday’s hearing.
But in written comments to DENR, the organizations don’t oppose the Lee and Chatham landfills, but rather recommend additional groundwater monitoring at the proposed landfill sites.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources will hold another public hearing Thursday on the proposal to allow Duke Energy to move up to 20 million tons of coal ash to two landfills in Lee and Chatham counties. The projects require multiple environmental permits. The hearing will run from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, with sign-up for speakers beginning at 5 p.m. at Chatham County Historic Courthouse, 9 Hillsboro St., Pittsboro.