Skip to main content

Tr-Ash Talk: Clean Up Your Coal Ash!

The Progress Energy plant in Asheville, NC operates two of the nation's tallest high-hazard coal-ash ponds. “High-hazard” means that if either of the pond’s decades-old earthen dams were to break, loss of life would be likely. In Asheville, such a break would completely swamp the French Broad River and Interstate 26.

Absent a dam break, these unlined ponds unfortunately still pose tremendous threats, releasing dangerous chemicals into the area’s groundwater, river and air. The people of North Carolina are tired of being exposed to toxic coal ash, and on World Water Day last March, more than 200 North Carolinians joined together for a “Clean Water, Not Coal Ash” rally against this pollution. On Coal River videographer Adams Wood captured the essence of this event in the accompanying video:

Concern for the French Broad River is justified because more than a year’s worth of data collected by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Progress Energy show a consistent pattern of toxic heavy metals migrating from the ash ponds to the river. Such metals as selenium, chromium and thallium are in the groundwater at levels exceeding what North Carolina has deemed as safe. In the case of manganese, it’s more than 140 times that limit.

Additionally, in my role as the French Broad Riverkeeper, I’ve conducted water testing showing coal ash discharges arsenic into the French Broad River from the coal ash ponds at concentrations greater than 18 times the state’s human health standard.

Arsenic is one of the most potent cancer-causing toxins on the planet. Unbelievably, the current permit for the plant allows an unlimited amount of arsenic to be discharged. In fact, the only toxic metal with a discharge limit is mercury, and that limit is more than 52 times what the state considers safe for fresh water aquatic life.

And it’s not just our water that’s being poisoned. Coal ash has repeatedly coated the homes and gardens of many in the community surrounding the coal ash ponds. People in these communities are hesitant to open their windows and let their kids play outside because they worry coal ash is damaging their health.

It’s known that coal ash does pose a threat when inhaled as it can lodge deep in the lungs and even pass toxic particles from the lungs into the blood. This type of exposure can trigger ailments ranging from asthma attacks to increased risk of mortality.

The coal ash problem does not stop in Asheville. North Carolina faces a huge threat to public health and the environment from coal ash. In addition to the two ponds in Asheville, there are 10 additional high hazard ponds in North Carolina—the greatest number of high hazard ponds of any state in the U.S., according to the EPA. In addition, there are six ponds in the state rated “significant hazard,” which means that a failure would cause substantial economic loss, environmental damage, or damage to infrastructure.

In the last 10 years, there have been three releases from these coal ash ponds and 13 documented cases of contamination of groundwater and lakes. One North Carolina lake, Belews Lake, was so contaminated by coal ash that 19 of the 20 species of fish in the lake were completely eliminated. At a second lake, Hyco Lake in Roxboro, the NC Department of Health and Human Services issued a fish consumption advisory for 12 years, because the fish were poisoned with selenium.

Drinking water sources are also at risk. Groundwater at 11 sites has been contaminated by coal ash, including eight sites where arsenic and/or chromium have been found above federal drinking water standards.

In May 2010, the EPA proposed two possible standards for handling coal ash. Yet in light of what seems to be intense pressure from coal and other corporate interests, the EPA has indefinitely delayed this rule. Several public interest groups, including Appalachian Voices, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and the Western North Carolina Alliance, represented by Earthjustice recently filed suit against the EPA with the hope of prompting a deadline for a final standard.

Sadly, as EPA has stalled on measures to protect the public from this toxic waste, Congress has used this delay to advance dangerous measures that would further compromise public health. Just a few weeks back, the House of Representatives passed a transportation bill that included an amendment that would fail to get rid of the coal ash ponds and prevent the EPA from ever setting federal coal ash safeguards and instead leaving that authority to the states.

As evidenced in North Carolina and other states burdened by these ponds, waiting for states to effectively regulate coal ash is a lose-lose situation. The longer the delay, the more our North Carolina waterways are the dumping grounds for this industrial waste. The only way to stop this toxic dumping: establish federal protections now.

French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson works for the Western North Carolina Alliance, a grass-roots group promoting livable communities and environmental protection. He can be reached at (828) 258-8737 or at