Time for NC to protect residents, not corporations

Last week we learned that federal prosecutors have charged Duke Energy for crimes related to Duke’s irresponsible storage of coal ash, which resulted in last year’s spill of 39,000 tons of the toxic substance into the Dan River. Duke reports that it reached a plea deal with officials that would cost the company’s shareholders more than $100 million in fines and remediation costs.

The Dan River spill was a high-profile, in-your-face environmental disaster that garnered national attention. But what about the large quantities of arsenic and other toxic coal ash pollutants continuously seeping from Duke’s H.F. Lee coal ash facility in Goldsboro, upstream of the community’s drinking water intakes?

Every hour of every day, the coal ash pits on the bank of the Neuse River are illegally leaking dangerous contamination into the surrounding ground and surface water. In fact, one of the criminal charges against Duke Energy was for “negligently” constructing one of these creek-like discharges that continues to flow into the Neuse from the ash pits at this dump. The Lee site has the highest levels of arsenic contamination of all Duke’s ash dumps in North Carolina.

Over a year after the Dan River disaster, our Department of Environment and Natural Resources and our legislature should require that Duke remove the coal ash from the dangerous, polluting Lee site.

But yet another continuous source of pollution looms on the banks and tributaries of the Neuse: industrial hog operations, most of which are controlled by foreign corporate interests. Over 500 of the 2,000 industrial hog factories in North Carolina call the Neuse River Basin home. The 10 million hogs that live in our state produce roughly as much waste as 100 million people.

But much like the irresponsible way that coal ash is stored, hog feces is held

in unlined open pits close to our waterways. It doesn’t stay there for long, though. The untreated waste is sprayed onto fields, which are heavily ditched to drain the bacteria and nutrient-laden liquid off-site into tributaries that flow to the Neuse River.

The result is predictable. A recent study published by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill and Johns Hopkins found high levels of fecal bacteria (otherwise known as poop) in waterways next to hog operations. Numerous other peer-reviewed scientific studies show pollution from hog facilities and associated health effects on neighbors and environmental degradation.

Even though the researchers used sophisticated methods to trace the bacteria back to hogs, officials at DENR called the evidence “inconclusive.” Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that our state officials’ response mirrored the response from the hog industry. It’s the same position they took with Duke Energy until a high-profile disaster forced their hand.

Now another federal agency, EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, is investigating DENR for civil rights violations resulting from its lax regulation of hog operations. The burden suffered by local residents is so great and falls so disproportionately on communities of color, especially in rural Eastern North Carolina, that local residents with support of community and environmental groups petitioned EPA in September to look into potential violations of the Civil Rights Act.

After almost six months spent reviewing the allegations in the complaint, the federal government is investigating whether our state agency failed to protect those communities. It’s another example of the federal government having to step in when our local officials won’t act.

We’ve seen what happens when our government turns a blind eye to serious threats to our health. Residents and the environment will continue to suffer until it is too late. It is time for our elected officials and DENR to act on their duty to protect the residents of North Carolina, not the corporate interests of Duke Energy and Big Ag.

Matthew Starr of Raleigh is the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. Travis Graves of New Bern is the Lower Neuse Riverkeeper.