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North Carolina Coal Ash Pollution and the Frankenbill

There is a running joke in my hometown about the glowing green fish and three-headed salamanders in Lake Julian. Nestled in the center of Arden, North Carolina, and surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, this lake was once the picturesque centerpiece of the quaint Southern town. But thanks to the pollution from Progress Energy’s nearby coal ash pond, these jokes aren’t far from the truth.

Unfortunately, the North Carolina Legislature is debating a bill to make this type of coal ash contamination increasingly prevalent throughout local waterways. NC Senate Bill 612, sponsored by Republican leaders in both the House and Senate, seeks to “provide regulatory relief to the citizens of North Carolina” by creating a fast-track process to obtain environmental permits. The bill, which has already passed in the Senate and is currently moving through the House, would allow coal-fired power plants to contaminate groundwater up to and past their property lines—eliminating all current boundaries.

Progress Energy's coal-fired power plant on Lake Julian. (Courtesy of San Pedro River Educational)Progress Energy's coal-fired power plant on Lake Julian. (zen Sutherland)

Lobbying for this bill are Duke and Progress Energy—the primary coal energy providers in North Carolina—who would no longer be prevented from contaminating their neighbors’ groundwater. If the bill passes, North Carolina citizens living near power plants will lose their 500-foot protection from the devastating effects of coal ash exposure, as these power companies would be given a seemingly endless radius around their plant to pollute. What were once prevention measures would quickly turn in to retrospective clean-up efforts as toxic ash filled with arsenic, mercury, lead, selenium, cadmium and other pollutants seeps into the groundwater of nearby neighbors. It is easy to see why North Carolina-based environmental organizations have dubbed the Regulatory Reform Act “Frankenbill.”

But the debate over North Carolina water pollution doesn’t end in Congress. In the midst of the legislative debate over the Regulatory Reform Act, the North Carolina Division of Water Quality has sued Duke Energy for contaminating the French Broad River and other major waterways throughout the state with toxic metals that pose “a serious danger to the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state of North Carolina and serious harm to water resources.” At the same time the powerful energy companies are lobbying the North Carolina House to gain ground to pollute with their toxic waste, residents and water quality experts have recognized the devastating effects this coal ash has already had on North Carolina waters.

Though both the lawsuit and the Regulatory Reform Act are in rudimentary stages, their timing could be critical. As the North Carolina Division of Water Quality actively fights against the coal industry to protect clean water, Republican legislative leaders counteract their efforts with a bill that will dramatically worsen the contaminated conditions. For the sake of Lake Julian, and all North Carolina waterways, let us hope the Frankenbill is put to rest.