(pictured above: Amy Adams speaks.)
The Feb. 2 pipe leak that dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash into Dan River is just the beginning of environmental problems caused by Duke Energy’s coal ash basins, according to environmentalists who spoke at Temple Emanuel last Thursday.
The gathering of the Temple Emanuel Environmental Movement (TEEM) – which addresses enviromental issues through regular movie screenings and discussions – focused solely on the coal ash controversy last week after technical issues prevented highlights from the Robert Redford-narrated film “Watershed” from being screened.
Even before the Dan River spill, which Duke Energy started cleaning up with a vacuum dredging technique this week, state environmental groups like Appalachian Voices and the Waterkeeper Alliance sued the company to force it to clean up its coal ash basins – like the one at Dan River – which they contend pollute both surrounding water bodies and ground water.
“There are many complicated environmental issues; this is not one of them,” said Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the environmental groups in the lawsuit.
Coal ash is the waste left over after coal is burned at power plants. Currently, Duke Energy has 33 basins holding more than 100 million tons of coal ash at 14 sites around the state. It’s kept in unlined pits that are separated from local waterways by dams. The problem, according to Holleman, is that the basins are leaking into local water supplies. The groups are asking Duke to move the coal ash to a dry, lined pit or to recycle it into concrete as other utility companies do.
A video presented by Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams claims an unusually high number of unexplained cancer cases have occurred in young people near the Belews Creek coal-fired power plant. She said it was uncertain if Duke’s coal ash, which contains toxic compounds like mercury, arsenic and lead, is the cause, but she’d like to see it investigated. Adams, used to work for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the state’s environmental regulator, but left in protest over recent changes that she says have left the agency with insufficient staff and lax regulation policies.
DENR has been criticized for filing its own lawsuit against Duke Energy and then trying to work out a settlement with the $50 billion company in which it would only pay a $99,000 fee and commission a study to probe the environmental effects of coal ash. The now defunct settlement would not have forced the company to clean up coal ash sites. When a judge ruled in March that Duke must clean up all its coal ash basins, both the company and DENR challenged it. DENR, along with Duke, has been subpoenaed in the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of the cause of the Dan River coal ash spill.
Dean Naujoks, riverkeeper and executive director of Yadkin Riverkeeper, which is a certified member of Waterkeepers Alliance, said it was shocking to see environmental regulators side against environmentalists.
“The most disturbing thing is that the agency that’s charged to protect public health and the environment, and its mission is to enforce environmental laws, is actually working with this industry. to block efforts to clean up these coal ash ponds,” he said.
The speakers urged the public to make their voices heard on the state level and by denouncing a bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating coal ash.
Duke Energy has said it has plans to move the ash at several sites, including Dan River, to dry, lined pits, a process that will take years. However, for 10 of its sites, Duke would like to do a cheaper “cap in place” closure that it says will provide a barrier to keep the ash dry and protect ground water. Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good addressed the issue at a luncheon last month.
“We have been storing ash for nine decades,” she said. “We operate 33 ash basins across North Carolina. There are 650 ash basins at utility power plants across the U.S. When you talk about something of that magnitude, effectively dealing with it is going to take science, it’s going to take time, it’s going to take engineering. Every ash site is situated differently and needs to be addressed with an engineered solution.”