Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect statements that Duke Energy provided to Carolina Public Press after the story was initially published.
ASHEVILLE — Clean up coal ash everywhere, not just in those places the state has suggested categorizing as high priority, multiple speakers told N.C. Department of Environmental Quality officials during a public hearing Tuesday night at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
The General Assembly approved legislation in 2014 to mandate the closure of Duke Energy-Progress’ unlined coal-ash dumps throughout the state. DEQ is conducting hearings at sites near coal-ash facilities to hear from the public about proposed assignment of categories for hazards and priorities among the sites.
Final assignment of priorities will be made by the Coal Ash Commission later this year, once it is reappointed. That step is necessary because the N.C. Supreme Court threw out the old method of appointing members, which involved the General Assembly in what constitutionally should be a function of the executive branch of state government, justices said. Comments from the hearings may be considered in that decision-making process.
Speaker after speaker Tuesday night said cancer-causing heavy metals that leak into ground and surface water from coal-ash storage facilities pose an unacceptable threat to all communities.
While many were pleased that Duke Energy Progress has committed to cleaning up its coal ash facility in South Asheville and the state has identified the site as a high priority, they questioned how any community could be expected to tolerate the health hazards associated with storage of coal ash.
Katie Hicks of Clean Water for North Carolina said she “fully supports” treating the Buncombe County coal-ash site as a high priority, as the state has proposed. “It absolutely should be moved away from its location overlooking I-26 and the French Broad River where it has been leaking into the groundwater,” she said.
But she pointed to serious doubts about how effective Duke’s handling of sites designated as lower priorities will be. One concern is that these sites may merely be closed, so that no additional ash is placed there, instead of the hazardous waste being removed and taken to lined sites that should be less prone to leakage.
Louis Zeller of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League expressed concern about locations in the eastern Piedmont in Lee and Chatham counties where Duke has contracted with a limited liability company to bury coal ash from several other sites in clay pits that were supposedly left over from excavation for the region’s once-thriving brick and clay-pipe industry.
The origins of the pits, their ability to keep toxins from seeping into the water table and the stealthy way in which the project was planned have all led to doubts about this part of Duke’s plans in these rural communities south of the Triangle area. Zeller was especially critical of the “secrecy that surrounds the process.”
Several speakers pointed to Duke’s other Western North Carolina facility, at Cliffside in eastern Rutherford County. State officials have said portions of this are low risk while others are low to intermediate. But the dams there have been cited for structural problems and filings with the federal Environmental Protection Agency suggest that conditions are more deteriorated and less monitored than those in Buncombe County.
Duke has acknowledged some of these issues and begun excavating coal ash in Rutherford County ahead of the schedule the state has set. Residents in both areas have been warned by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services that they should not drink from wells that may be contaminated with lead, arsenic, chromium and other dangerous pollutants. Duke has supplied those residents supplied with bottled water, though some speakers noted that this an insufficient replacement for having a good source of water.
However, that doesn’t mean that Duke agrees that there are serious problems with the water in these locations or that any issues that do exist are due to Duke’s activities, a spokesperson for the company told Carolina Public Press on Wednesday.
“All the data the state agencies and Duke Energy have gathered so far show that ash basins have not impacted neighbors’ wells, except at Sutton Plant (in Wilmington), which we’ve already addressed,” said Catherine Butler of Duke Energy corporate communications in an email to CPP. “The state confirms neighbors’ wells meet federal drinking standards and are safe as public water supplies around the nation that serve millions of people every day.”
Even so, the company has provided water in Asheville and other areas, which may have led to the perception that it was admitting to serious problems with the water. “To give neighbors peace of mind while the issue is sorted out, we continue to provide bottled water for about 380 residences across the state, including some near the Asheville Plant, and know these neighbors continue to seek resolution from the state on this issue,” Butler said. “We have not made any decisions about the timeline to discontinue water deliveries and will update residents well in advance of any changes.”
Talking with CPP by phone Wednesday, Butler further clarified that it was not Duke, but the state who decided that pollutant levels in wells were excessive. Federal drinking water standards would not have triggered such a warning, Butler explained. Duke also found similar elevated levels of these pollutants at nearby wells that were clearly upstream from Duke’s operations, apparently indicated that the toxins are naturally occurring, she said.
Another issue that drew concern from several speakers was the revelation that Duke has begun transporting ash from Buncombe County to its lined storage facility in Rutherford County. That facility was already being used for coal ash from the Cliffside plant. But speakers expressed concern about moving toxin-laden ash between sites rather than taking care of it closer to the site in Asheville. They also objected to ongoing operations in which coal ash is trucked out of North Carolina, through South Carolina, to a site in Georgia. While it might put the waste out of sight and out of mind for North Carolina regulators, it constituted passing on serious hazard to other states, speakers said.
Butler told CPP on Wednesday that the site in Homer, Ga., involves a fully lined storage facility.
Jeri Cruz-Segarra of Arden, who opened Tuesday’s hearing, set the tone as she described high cancer rates in her neighborhood, along with compromised immune systems. She warned that Duke and the state should stop trying to address the problem with a “quick fix” and take the difficulties of such neighborhoods more seriously.
She and other speakers also expressed outrage that Duke is passing on its cleanup costs to ratepayers rather than having shareholders foot the bill for what their company has done, as some other utility companies dealing with coal ash waste have done.
“Duke has polluted my community, compromised my diminished health and is now going to charge me for (cleaning it up),” she said.
Several speakers discussed the pros and cons of attempting to reuse coal ash to create concrete and road-paving material. While it has value for these uses, the toxins have to be removed or sufficiently encapsulated to safeguard public health.
Xavier Boatright of Clean Water for North Carolina pointed to two reclamation plants that a utility in South Carolina is operating to remove the heavy metals from coal ash and prepare it for reuse.
“Maybe North Carolina can learn something from South Carolina,” he said.