Coal-ash activists, Dems call for more regulatory funds

Citizen advocates joined Democratic lawmakers Thursday to call on legislative leaders to supply more funding for DEQ and DHHS and to more strictly police polluters, including Duke Energy.

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Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — Citizen advocates joined Democratic lawmakers Thursday to call on legislative leaders to supply more funding for state environmental and health regulators and to more strictly police polluters, including Duke Energy.

The occasion for the news conference, organizers said, was the 1,000-day mark of living on bottled water for nearly 1,000 North Carolina households near coal ash ponds whose private wells show evidence of contaminants many believe to be linked to coal ash.

"I cannot begin to imagine the horror of being relegating to surviving on bottled water for a hundred days, not to mention a thousand days," said Bobby Jones with the Down East Coal Ash Coalition. "Guess what? Neither can Duke Energy or the majority of the people that work in this Legislative Building.

"These mothers, fathers, grandparents and children deserve better," Jones continued. "They deserve more than a cavalier or casual response – 'Oh, we’re going to give you some water, it’ll be all right.’ They deserve some representation and protection from the people they elected."SDu

Duke is required by a 2016 law to provide permanent alternative water supplies to households within a half-mile of coal ash ponds by October 2018. Spokesman Jeff Brooks said the company is on schedule to meet that deadline.

But three years of trying to live on bottles, advocate Carolina Armijo said, has been disruptive – and the sooner it ends, the better.

"Your children can’t play in the bathtub or swim in the pool. You have to brush your teeth with bottled water. You have to make your coffee with bottled water," said Armijo, who lives in a community near the Belews Creek Power Station and its coal ash pits northeast of Winston-Salem. "You know how many bottles it takes to boil a box of pasta. You know how many bottles it takes to create a Thanksgiving meal."

Asked whether the spotlight on GenX, an unregulated chemical found in Wilmington's water supply, has eclipsed the problems of those families, Rep. John Autry, D-Mecklenburg, said he thinks the opposite is true: "The awareness that coal ash has brought to the picture has contributed to bringing the awareness around GenX."

Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, said the two contamination crises highlight the need for better protection and regulation of water quality by the state's Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services.

"We have cut the funding for the Department of Environmental Quality by over 40 percent over the past five years. They are unable to do their jobs and set safe levels for these chemicals," Van Duyn said. "The Senate needs to do its job and take up [House Bill 189] and fund DEQ adequately so we can protect the drinking water for everyone in North Carolina."

"We have an enormous permitting backlog, and that comes from a lack of manpower and lack of resources, and we’ve got to get ahead of that backlog," agreed Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover.

Butler accused Republican leaders of "pandering to corporations who line their pockets with campaign contributions" in the cases of both GenX and coal ash.

"We dragged legislators from across this state to the tune of about 50,000 taxpayer dollars to convene a session that resulted in zero," she said of Wednesday's debate over House Bill 189, which would allocate $2.3M to DEQ for additional scientists and high-tech equipment, including a mass spectrometer.

"We passed it in the House, and what seemed like minutes later, a memorandum came out from the Senate that said, 'No, thanks,'" she said. "Now, if that wasn’t orchestrated and contrived, I’ve never seen anything like it."

Republicans who oppose restoring budget cuts to DEQ have repeatedly argued that both the coal ash and GenX contamination problems began decades ago, but DEQ didn't catch them even when the agency was fully funded. But Butler countered that a better-funded DEQ could set the national standard for monitoring emerging contaminants going forward.

"Just because we didn’t fix it 30 years ago doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fix it now," she said. "We know about it now, the technology is better now, and again – it’s a new day in environmental awareness and activism in this state."


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