NC should move now on safe coal ash storage

Take a close look at a potential coal ash spill on the Cape Fear River

News & Observer reporters ride along with Waterkeeper Alliance to view a potential coal ash spill near Wilmington, N.C. on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
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News & Observer reporters ride along with Waterkeeper Alliance to view a potential coal ash spill near Wilmington, N.C. on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

On Feb. 2, 2014, a 48-inch drain pipe located at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River Steam Station burst, spilling 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of coal ash pond water into the Dan River. This event represented one of the largest coal ash spills in U.S. history and directly threatened the immediate drinking water supply of communities in North Carolina and Virginia.

Outcry over the spill was swift, with local residents and environmental advocates raising concerns about the impact the plume would have on wildlife and water quality and demanding that the utility be held accountable. The spill exacerbated concerns regarding coal ash in the state, coming on the heels of a 2013 state-filed lawsuit sighting groundwater and wastewater violations at the utility’s 14 coal ash storage ponds across North Carolina.

Fast-forward to February 2019 and it seems that this conversation about coal ash hasn’t changed.

Over the past five years, through hearings, debates, petitions and public comments, community meetings and meetings with many decision makers, residents living near Duke Energy’s toxic, leaking coal ash pits have said the same thing time after time: Duke Energy must clean up after itself. That means excavating all storage ponds and moving them away from sources of drinking water and away from major waterways and into secure, lined landfills.

Gov. Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), led by Secretary Michael Regan, has just finished another series of public information sessions around the state. The agency presented three options for coal ash disposal: excavate (with waste being moved to lined landfills either on or off-site), keep the ash in place, or a “hybrid” option that nevertheless keeps much of the ash in place. DEQ has been collecting public comment and says it will use this to inform its recommended closure plans for six coal ash impoundments in the coming months.

But why is DEQ still undecided? It has years of public input to consider, and the public overwhelmingly wants coal ash moved to where it cannot threaten drinking water and waterways again..

It is not fair to ask regular folks with jobs and families and the demands of daily life to continue to show up to hard-to-reach meetings and to continuously raise their now-hoarse voices. I

It is wrong that the greatest devastation that occurs at the end of these short-sighted decisions happen in the most vulnerable communities in our state, many of which have already struggled through years of exposure to dangerous toxins and living without clean running water.

The concept of Seven Generations teaches us that we who live now must work with the well-being of those who will live in the seventh generation to come in mind. This means we must end shortsighted decisions that we know will result in long-term devastation. It’s time for the governor and DEQ to end this cycle of listening and doing the bare minimum. Instead, they should take bold action to protect the livelihoods of current North Carolinians and of those to come. It’s time for the state of North Carolina to protect its people and instruct Duke Energy to excavate every last bit of coal ash and put it in a safer place.

William Barber III serves on DEQ’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. Jeff Anstead, of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe, heads the Environmental Justice Committee of the NC Commission on Indian Affairs.