Will NC Gov. McCrory’s DEQ Heed Demands for Proper Coal Ash Cleanup?

Guest Blog | March 31, 2016 | Coal, Energy Policy
Community members and advocates at DEQ's public hearing for Plant Allen in Gastonia.

If you’re paying attention to North Carolina politics, you know Governor Pat McCrory’s administration seems very out of step with North Carolinians statewide. As his ink dries on the controversial HB2 (which the state’s attorney general refused to defend in court), it’s no surprise that so many North Carolinians are wondering whether Gov. McCrory will listen to their common-sense demands when it comes to coal ash.

Throughout the month of March, hundreds of North Carolinians attended 14 hearings held by Gov. McCrory’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Many were angry that McCrory’s DEQ seems bent on ignoring science and public health concerns.

The agency’s political leadership recently changed the recommendations of its own experts and downgraded classifications for Duke’s coal ash pits that would have required Duke to excavate its ash. Then, Gov. McCrory disbanded a commission created by the legislature to provide oversight of the high-stakes classification process.

Gov. McCrory has an opportunity to regain some public trust by requiring Duke to remove its coal ash from unlined pits to dry, lined storage away from rivers and waterways. If you missed the hearings but want to weigh in, comments will still be accepted through April 18. Will you add your voice by signing our petition to McCrory’s DEQ?

Packed house at DEQ’s Plant Allen public hearing

Community members, ProgressNC, and the Catawba Riverkeeper held a press conference before the public hearing in Gastonia.

On March 22, I represented SACE at one of DEQ’s 14 hearings at Allen Steam Station, near Charlotte, along with over 250 people who showed up to demand that Duke clean up its coal ash mess. Allen’s ash is among nearly 100 million tons of ash whose  fate—clean up or be left to pollute in place—could hinge on DEQ’s final priority level classifications due by May 18, 2016.

Much of Duke’s coal ash has been stored in unlined pits at the plant for over 60 years, and last year residents received letters from NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) warning them that their private well water is unsafe to drink.

DHHS recently rescinded many of those letters, creating a great deal of concern and confusion for well owners near Allen and in other communities across the state. The ‘do drink’ letters suggest well users will be safe drinking contaminated water, up to a concentration that DHHS scientists believe could impose a 1 in 700 risk of getting cancer, despite state water rules setting acceptable lifetime cancer risk at no more than one in a million.

At the hearing, Amy Brown, whose property is mere feet away from Plant Allen’s coal ash pits, gave powerful testimony along with over 30 other attendees. She’s a mother of two, and said she was worried for her children’s health and frustrated over Duke’s handling of its toxic coal ash in her community. After receiving a letter from the state advising her not to drink her water, Brown has become a leading voice in the community demanding that Duke properly clean up its coal ash. Click the link to learn more about her story.

Pete Harrison, an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance, chastised Duke for providing inaccurate and inadequate technical information about its coal ash pits to DEQ, which contributed to DEQ labeling over 16 million tons of coal ash at Plant Allen as “low-to-intermediate,” meaning a determination is yet to be made. A “low priority” designation would allow ash to be capped in place even if it is in contact with groundwater.

Harrison argued, “Without all the information needed to determine the fate of the toxic waste at Allen, DEQ has reserved the option of deeming the ash dumps at Allen—and by extension the community around it—low priorities where ash may be left in leaking pits until the end of time.”

The community around Plant Allen is demanding what communities across the state are demanding: that McCrory’s DEQ require Duke to remove its coal ash to lined, dry storage away from rivers and waterways where it will not contaminate groundwater or put already vulnerable environmental justice communities at additional risk.

Activists demand solar energy over coal and coal pollution at the 2015 Duke Shareholder Meeting.

Cleanup uncertainty persists

DEQ has said its final ratings will be influenced by its hearings and by public comments which will be accepted until April 18, 2016. But the fate of those final ratings is yet to be determined, because thanks to Gov. McCrory, the body that was supposed to review them no longer exists.

After the catastrophic Dan River coal ash spill in 2014, the NC General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) to establish a process for cleaning up coal ash throughout NC, including creation of a Coal Ash Management Commission to approve DEQ’s ratings and oversee the implementation of coal ash clean up plans.

However, Gov. McCrory disbanded the Commission after winning a controversial legal battle in the state supreme court.

Though Duke is required by CAMA to clean up some of its coal ash, millions of tons of “low priority” ash could potentially be left perpetually polluting groundwater if the McCrory administration doesn’t heed the demands of hundreds of concerned community members.

Click here to sign the petition calling on McCrory’s DEQ to require proper coal ash clean up!

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