Over the past several months at my internship with Earthjustice, it’s become abundantly clear that the right to clean water is just a pipe dream for many communities. From Florida’s algae crisis to lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, to massive waste discharges from industrial hog facilities in North Carolina to leaking coal ash ponds across the southeast, many Americans are at risk. Perhaps, none more so than those who live with coal ash waste in their backyards.
Coal ash is the toxic waste leftover from burning coal in power plants. Every year, roughly 140 million tons of coal ash are dumped into more than 1,000 coal ash ponds across the United States. More than 330 coal ash ponds are considered to be a high or significant hazard, meaning that if the dams containing the coal ash were to fail, there’s a significant risk of property damage and loss of life.
Moreover, last month, Duke University released a study showing evidence that several coal ash ponds in the southeastern United States are leaking toxic chemicals into the groundwater. These toxins include heavy metals, such as arsenic and selenium, while past independent reports have also found hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen.
Two weeks ago, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed H630, a bill to bail out his former longtime employer Duke Energy. This is not the first time the governor and the North Carolina legislature have seemed to be in bed with the nation’s largest utility company. H630 would allow seven of Duke Energy’s 14 North Carolina power plants to leave their unlined coal ash lagoons in place, instead of excavating the ponds for safety. These seven lagoons are some of the most dangerous in the state and have a history of harming surrounding communities. The other seven plants’ ponds must already be excavated under the Coal Ash Management Act and by order of the North Carolina Superior Court. It seems as if this bill were written by Duke specifically to save itself money and the responsibility to ethically dispose of the remaining coal ash.
Each of the seven power plants targeted by the new bill has ponds that are of high or significant hazard under EPA standards and are at intermediate risk based on North Carolina Department Environmental Quality (DEQ) standards. H630 would reduce the DEQ risk ranking of the seven plants from intermediate to low, allowing them to leave their coal ash in place.
People around the state are already suffering; Duke Energy is providing bottled water to many families with poisoned well water and groundwater who live around these plants. Last year alone, owners of 330 different water wells near Duke Energy coal plants received letters from the state advising them not to drink their well water due to heavy metal contamination.
In the second week of July, citizens of Charlotte, the city where I live, learned about high levels of arsenic in Mountain Island Lake, the city’s primary source of drinking water. In June, county officials detected nearly ten times the safe limit of arsenic in the lake near a coal ash pond drainage site near Duke Energy’s retired Riverbend Steam Station. Since the discovery, Duke has stopped draining the pond and plans to install a water treatment system to keep arsenic out of the lake.
However, North Carolina provides just one example of poor management and oversight by many southeastern state governments when it comes to coal ash. From Duke Energy to Dominion to Georgia Power to Alabama Power to the Tennessee Valley Authority, electric utilities often hold energy monopolies in their states. As a result, these utilities have very close ties to state legislatures, which can be quick to undermine health protections for the communities that need them most.
Prior to December 2014, there were no federal regulations for coal ash, and its handling was largely left to state governments with a track record of poor management. Compelled by litigation from Earthjustice and the Southern Environmental Law Center, the EPA finalized the first-ever coal ash management and disposal standard, but the rule does not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. By failing to call coal ash hazardous waste, the EPA denied communities across the country the most stringent protections. The rule is devoid of federal or state oversight and enforcement authority, allowing utility companies to police themselves. So residents near coal ash dumps can only rely on the goodwill of industry and on citizen suits to hold companies accountable if they don’t comply.
My hometown of Charlotte cannot wait for an unwilling state government to protect the community. While the coal ash that threatens our water source, which nearly one million people rely on, will be fully excavated, there are many people in the state who will not receive this relief. We desperately need the federal government to oversee and enforce coal ash regulations, while holding polluters accountable. Our water, our health, our families and our lives depend on it.