Our View: Coal Ash Cleanup Bill Far Short of Our Needs

Guest Blog | July 9, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy

This guest post originally appeared in the Fayetteville Observer’s Opinion Editorials on July 5, 2014. You can access the original piece here. The North Carolina General Assembly is working quickly to pass the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014, which has been further weakened by the House and fails to protect North Carolina communities and waterways from toxic coal ash. Contact your elected officials today and ask them to improve this bill by at least restoring it to the version passed by the NC Senate.

The bill fails to guarantee clean up of 10 polluting and dangerous coal ash sites across the state, like this one at Duke's Buck Steam Station. For years, these sites have been contaminating groundwater with dangerously high concentrations of toxic substances. Neighbors of the Buck and other coal ash dumpsites have suffered rare and unexplained illnesses, causing them to wonder if coal ash is harming their health.

They’re not serious. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion. If the General Assembly really wanted to eliminate the threat posed by Duke Energy’s coal-ash storage ponds, it would have ordered an assessment of all 33 of the ponds and come up with specific instructions for the cleanup.

Instead, lawmakers made cleanup mandatory for only four of them (all curiously close to the homes of powerful legislators) and left the details for the other 29 to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Duke Energy – whose relationship over the years has been altogether too cordial.

In an extended clash on the House floor Wednesday night, this region’s lawmakers fought to add the ponds at Duke’s shuttered Cape Fear plant, where nearly a billion gallons of coal-ash and contaminated water are held by embankments that inspectors have rated in poor condition. A few months ago, the watchdog Waterkeepers Alliance discovered Duke had released more than 60 million gallons of that water into the Cape Fear. That’s more than was spilled into the Dan River in February, in the event that triggered the drive for a cleanup.

The Cape Fear plant sits where the Haw and Deep rivers come together to form the Cape Fear. It is three miles above Sanford’s water-plant intake. Downstream sit treatment plants for Harnett County, Dunn, Fayetteville, Wilmington and Brunswick County. Nearly a quarter of North Carolina’s residents get their drinking water from the Cape Fear basin.

None of that was enough to persuade a House majority that the plant belonged on the top-priority list. An effort to add Robeson County’s Weatherspoon plant never even got to a vote.

Perhaps anticipating the legislature’s unwillingness to act, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed notice last week that it would take action against the Cape Fear and two other plants, under the federal Clean Water Act. We’re fortunate that the environmental group will act, but that doesn’t mitigate the General Assembly’s irresponsibility.

It appears our lawmakers have no intention of requiring Duke Energy to remove all the ash from its leaking, unlined storage pits and are willing to let the ash remain in place, where it will continue to find its way into the water table.

So far, the General Assembly’s action on coal ash is edging perilously close to the Shakespearean “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” North Carolina deserves better.

Want to read more? Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices was published by the News and Observer on July 7 with her opinion piece “Weak coal ash bill an affront to North Carolinians.”

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