Last week, controversy erupted in North Carolina when the state’s epidemiologist resigned via an open letter, saying that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is willingly misleading the public.
It’s the latest installment in an ongoing battle over coal ash contamination in residents’ well water. Earlier this summer, a state toxicologist’s deposition accused the governor’s staff of pressuring him to sign on to letters saying well water near coal ash sites was safe to drink. In response, the governor’s office accused him of lying under oath.
How did we get here?
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For the past 50 years the question of how to regulate coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, has been left to the states. In North Carolina, that meant utility companies were allowed to store hundreds of millions of tons of ash full of toxic metals in unlined pits, without any barriers to prevent them from leaking into the groundwater that feeds nearby rivers and wells.
In the spring of 2015, residents who live near coal ash pits across the state began receiving letters from DHHS telling them their well water was contaminated—primarily with vanadium and hexavalent chromium (the carcinogen made famous by Erin Brockovich)—and that they shouldn’t drink it.
In all, 369 households were told their well water was unsafe to drink.
For two generations, our state governments have allowed ash to be warehoused in communities with little political influence—that is, low-income communities and communities of color. These community members do not have the resources to get a meeting with their governor. But Duke Energy, the state’s major power company, does.
On June 1, 2015 the governor and his staff, including his top environmental official, met privately with Duke Energy leadership—despite the fact that the state is in litigation with the company over coal ash contamination. A spokeswoman for Duke Energy described the meeting as a “routine update and conversation,” but this direct line between Duke Energy and the governor remains stronger than the voices of ordinary residents who need stronger environmental protections.
In May, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality completed a public comment and hearing process on ash clean up at 14 sites across the state. Of the 7,819 comments filed, 98% were in favor of a removal process called excavation, which would move the ash to lined landfills that prevent contaminants from mixing with groundwater. The process is expensive, but effective: In South Carolina, where all ash is being excavated, early groundwater testing results show that arsenic levels beneath the old pits have declined by 60% to 90%.
In mid-June, the North Carolina state legislature passed a bill requiring coal ash sites to be excavated, and safe water be permanently provided to residents. Governor Pat McCrory vetoed it. Instead, he signed a compromise bill that would allow Duke Energy to “cap in place” at some sites—that is, bury their ash without a protective liner to prevent groundwater contamination—instead of excavating, provided the utility ran water to residents and completed some dam repairs. The new legislation was met with objections from neighbors around coal ash pits.
The disparate impact on minority and low-income communities has caught the attention of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has been holding hearings in North Carolina and across the country to examine the impact of coal ash. Eventually, this effort could lead to recommendations to the EPA that would protect coal ash neighbors from lax state enforcement against powerful utilities. But in the meantime, residents have few options.
Compared to Duke Energy, we are all poor. This is a Fortune 250 utility company worth nearly $50 billion. Its territory stretches from Florida to Ohio, and regulators in many of these states are currently deciding how to handle coal ash.
We know Duke Energy will be heard. The question is whether or not residents will be heard, too.