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EPA coal ash proposal would loosen restrictions, raising eyebrows in NC

Several opponents of deregulating coal ash with North Carolina ties spoke at a public hearing in Northern Virginia Wednesday, urging the Environmental Protection Agency to reject a proposal that would loosen restrictions on how much coal ash can be used in construction projects and alter how piles of the material could be managed.

“Until the government can prove that this coal ash is safe in our water, soil and air, and that it is not responsible for any cancers or illnesses in each of these towns across the country, environmental rollbacks should not even be considered,” said former Mooresville resident Susan Wind, whose teenage daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer more than two years ago.

“Parents like me should not have the burden of proving coal ash is dangerous.”

After her daughter Taylor’s diagnosis, Wind heard from parents across her community who were in similar situations. She said she discovered that coal ash “was treated like dirt throughout our area,” used under roads, homes and even as topsoil in landscaping.

Wind raised more than $100,000 to fund a private study by Duke University scientists.

Iredell County had cancer rates nearly double the statewide average from 2012 to 2016, and two southeastern and southwestern parts of the county had rates even higher, The Charlotte Observer reported previously.

Wind and her family have moved to Florida because of health concerns, her husband Dave Wind said.

Under current EPA rules, anyone asking to use of more than 12,400 tons of coal ash as environmental fill has to prove it won’t harm the environment. Under the proposed changes, that cap would be removed entirely in favor of site-specific criteria. Another proposed change would alter how temporary storage piles of ash are managed, requiring those at power plant sites and away from them to be handled the same.

“EPA is trying right now to create as many loopholes as they can,” said Larissa Liebmann, a Waterkeeper Alliance staff attorney. “It’s a revision intended to benefit industry, and it comes directly out of industry comments and complaints.”

Several coal ash industry proponents spoke on behalf of the proposed changes Wednesday, saying the EPA’s previous limits were based on faulty math and there is no record of major damage cases.

But Megan Kimball, a attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, described issues with coal ash under the police station in Chapel Hill.

“People in the community are searching for answers,” she said as she argued against unlined structural fills and for a stronger EPA standard on boron.

While Liebmann and others expressed concern about the proposed changes, they do not appear likely to have an immediate impact in North Carolina, in part due to the state’s Coal Ash Management Act. Passed in the wake of 2014’s Dan River spill, the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) required Duke Energy to begin closing ash basins at eight of 14 sites across the state. It also created rules about how the material — which contains arsenic, boron and chromium, among other contaminants — should be handled.

Duke is not taking a stance on the EPA’s proposal or submitting comments, a company spokesman said Tuesday.

“We are not planning off-site structural fills, and the ash recycling options we’re currently considering would fully encapsulate the ash so it is bound into a solid product, such as concrete,” Bill Norton, the Duke spokesman, said in a prepared statement.

The utility is building coal ash recycling units at Buck Steam Station in Salisbury, the Cape Fear Plant in Moncure and the H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro.

The utility has also started handling most of its new ash dry, Norton said, sending it either directly to lined landfills or to be recycled.

Earlier this year, Duke completed excavating ash basins at Eden’s Dan River Steam Station, Mount Holly’s Riverbend Steam Station and Wilmington’s Sutton Plant. In April, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality ordered Duke to excavate coal ash at the six plants not addressed under CAMA, moving the ash contained in basins at those sites to lined landfills, a decision Duke has appealed.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, cautioned that while Duke may not plan to conduct the activities the EPA is proposing loosening rules on, a strict federal law is important because residents can sue to enforce it, unlike the state rules.

“The federal rule gives local communities additional protections they do not have under CAMA,” Holleman said, noting that SELC used the threat of legal action under the federal coal ash rules to compel Duke to release maps showing which areas would be inundated in the event of a coal ash breach at their sites.

“The federal rules provide at least an important backstop to what North Carolina has in its Coal Ash Management Act,” Holleman said. “CAMA is subject to legislative change.”

Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor of Earth sciences who has extensively researched coal ash’s impact on the environment, spoke at Wednesday’s hearing. Vengosh cited not-yet-published research showing that when coal ash and water interact, hexavalent chromium allows for the ready mobilization of arsenic, chromium and selenium.

Vengosh said the EPA proposal would put water quality and, potentially, human health at risk.

The EPA will hold a virtual public hearing on the proposals from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 10. Those interested in speaking can register until Oct. 7 by visiting www.epa.gov/coalash.

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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