Raleigh, N.C. — Coal ash opponents are calling for changes to the way Duke Energy cleans up its coal ash ponds.
The new group, called Alliance for Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash, held its introductory news conference at the state legislature Wednesday. It's a coalition made up of citizens groups from communities near coal-fired power plants, as well as environmental groups including NC WARN, Appalachian Voices, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, River Guardians and Clean Water North Carolina.
A law passed last year requires Duke to excavate some of its 32 coal ash lagoons around the state, but the utility could be allowed to simply cap the rest of the unlined pits as long as state regulators sign off on it.
Since then, tests by the Department of Environmental Quality have found hundreds of contaminated wells near coal ash sites. Many contain high levels of vanadium, arsenic, hexavalent chromium and other cancer-causing metals and compounds that are found in coal ash.
Duke has supplied bottled water to many of the affected communities but has insisted that it's not responsible for most, if any, of the contaminated wells. Arsenic, for example, occurs naturally at high levels in some places in North Carolina. The 2014 law would require corrective action to clean up groundwater, but only if state regulators determine that the coal ash pits are responsible for the contamination.
"Our first priority is protecting groundwater and the environment around our sites. We recently completed extensive groundwater assessments that generally indicate that groundwater around our sites is flowing away from neighbor wells and is not impacting drinking water," said Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks.
Bobby Jones with the Downeast Coal Ash Coalition lives near the Lee plant in Goldsboro, and he and many of his neighbors have been warned their wells are contaminated with cancer-causing compounds. He says his community has had higher-than-average rates of cancer and neurological disorders for years.
Duke is already planning to excavate the Lee pits and move the ash to lined pits in an abandoned clay mine in Lee County. But Jones called on state leaders to force Duke to clean up the groundwater as well.
"Gov. McCrory, we invite you to come to our communities and visit us. We need for you to show us we are as important to you as Duke Energy," Jones said. "But if you value your health, please don't drink the water."
Tracey Edwards, who lives near the Belews Creek plant in Stokes County, said, “The public has been deceived into thinking it’s safe to live near these sites when it’s clearly not. It has taken a deadly toll on my community. We want Duke Energy to do the right thing and clean it up."
The coalition is calling for a more transparent coal ash clean-up process that involves the citizens of affected communities, as well as more stringent oversight of the process by elected officials and environmental regulators.
They're also calling on Duke and state leaders to rethink how the coal ash, once excavated, is disposed of.
Responding for the McCrory administration, DEQ spokesman Mike Rusher replied via email, "This administration was the first to tackle the more than 60-year-old problem of coal ash and ihttps://wral-pubtools.cbcnewmedia.com/pubtools2/ssued a record $25.1 million fine to hold Duke Energy accountable for groundwater contamination.
"State law mandates that DEQ oversee the cleanup and closure of all of coal ash impoundments based on sound science and public participation," Rusher wrote. "We are proud of the progress made by this administration and remain committed to protecting public health and the environment through science-based decisions and rigorous oversight of the cleanup process.”
Meantime, Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said the company is making progress on its cleanup plan.
"The strategies and techniques we’re using are based in science, and are designed to protect the environment and minimize impacts to local communities," Brooks said in a statement to WRAL News. "The closure process, established under state law, offers numerous opportunities for public participation and input, and is designed to be transparent throughout."