In North Carolina, a cry for coal-ash relief

View from the top of the Belews Creek Coal Plant looking over the power plant’s coal pile in 2009.
View from the top of the Belews Creek Coal Plant looking over the power plant’s coal pile in 2009. FILE PHOTO

At a town hall meeting in North Carolina last month, an N.C. Central University student from Stokes County told members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and its N.C. Advisory Committee that not one person in her immediate family has been cancer free.

“Stop killing our people. Stop harming our earth,” she begged, listing her family’s cancers and the large medical expenses they face.

The commissioners came to North Carolina to learn about the effects of coal ash stored in unlined, leaking coal ash pits. Because these effects at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek facility fall most heavily on communities of color, I asked the commission to recommend that EPA vigorously investigate whether the state is complying with all laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

People traveled from several North Carolina counties to give powerful witness at the town hall in Walnut Cove. They described coal ash from the Belews Creek facility stripping the paint off cars. They described children playing in Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds at its Lee facility because their families couldn’t afford a trip to the beach and didn’t know what was in the ponds. They described wiping coal ash off their children’s feet and giving them water to drink from the family’s wells. They fished in the nearby rivers and lakes. They listed in detail the illnesses suffered by their families and loved ones.

Coal ash contaminants in water can seriously harm people’s health, especially infants and children, a scientist who researches water quality around the world told commissioners.

Rick Martinez, a former McCrory staffer and advisory committee member, asked me whether the McCrory administration had done more than previous administrations. When I tried to give a full answer, he cut me off. But a local resident who lives near Belews Creek was allowed to fully respond: “We are dying with undrinkable water, (and) we want help. We don’t care about your re-election bids or none of that.”

Since taking office, the McCrory administration has worked to obstruct citizen suits aimed at cleaning up coal ash. The Department of Environmental Quality opposed cleanup of three dumps even when Duke Energy concluded that it needed to excavate the pits and move the ash to lined storage.

DEQ was dragged before a federal criminal grand jury and teamed up with Duke Energy to propose a settlement that would have blocked citizen enforcement of the Clean Water Act – a settlement DEQ withdrew after the criminal grand jury was empaneled.

A federal judge in Winston-Salem found that DEQ had not diligently prosecuted the enforcement actions that it brought in state court: “The Court is unable to find that DENR was trying diligently or that its state enforcement action was calculated, in good faith, to require compliance with the (Clean Water) Act.”

When DEQ’s professional staff ranked sites high or intermediate risk so that Duke Energy would be required to remove ash from unlined pits, DEQ’s political leaders lowered those rankings.

DEQ has, to date, not required one ounce of coal ash to be cleaned up that Duke Energy has not already agreed to clean up.

Putting coal ash in leaking, unlined holes in the ground next to our rivers, lakes and drinking water sources is a bad way to store industrial waste. A simple solution exists: Move the coal ash to safe, dry, lined storage as is being done in South Carolina.

“Somebody needs to wake up,” said a Stokes County resident who lives near Belews Creek. “I’m not (a) smart woman and don’t claim to be one, but I got some common sense. I want it moved. Get it out of here because it’s affecting people every day.”

Instead of continuing to play politics, DEQ needs to listen to the people’s plea to make their communities a high priority and move the coal ash to protect our rivers, lakes and drinking water sources from ongoing pollution.

Chandra Taylor who is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center