More than 500 people packed into a school gym in Catawba County Thursday night for a public meeting about how state regulators should require Duke Energy to clean up coal ash at nearby Marshall Steam Station.
It wasn't supposed to be a public hearing, but people demanded to be heard.
The meeting at Sherrills Ford Elementary School was planned as a drop-in information session on three cleanup options for the nearby Marshall plant: removal of 17 million tons of ash, capping the ash in place or a combination of the two.
As people arrived, they began visiting tables around the room with maps and other information. Department of Environmental Quality experts were there to answer questions and listen.
But as more people poured into the gym, that plan derailed.
The crowd sat on bleachers and booed when assistant DEQ secretary Sheila Holman invited people to go from table-to-table.
"It's a horrible format for this many people," one woman yelled.
Then, someone suggested polling the crowd about the three options. Holman agreed, and started with the proposal to excavate the ash and move it to new, lined landfills away from Lake Norman. It was the overwhelming crowd favorite.
It's not Duke Energy's first choice. The company says digging up coal ash at Marshall would cost more than a billion dollars and take 32 years, truckload by truckload. Duke's preferred option is to keep the ash where it is and to add a waterproof cover.
That idea got only boos.
Only one man raised a hand for a third option - a combination of capping in place and removal.
Holman and her staff then agreed to adjust the meeting format, and for the next hour, people asked questions or commented on why they want the ash removed.
HE SAYS DUKE SHOULD PAY
John Ong, who lives on Lake Norman, said it's the DEQ's job to protect people and the environment. That means removing the ash.
“Cost is not a factor. Duke Energy is a profit-making machine and can step up and pay for its own mistakes,” he told the DEQ officials.
Duke has gotten approval from the NC Utilities Commission to pass along most of its coal ash cleanup costs to its customers on their monthly bills.
Jane Sheaffer of Mooresville is worried about coal ash's potential threat to health. She was one of several speakers who noted that officials are investigating an unexplained spike in thyroid cancer cases in south Iredell County.
“The only reason we really know about it is because of a mother whose daughter had thyroid cancer. And I say that you need to be more pro-active with the health implications of these pollutants. It's terrible,” she said.
That prompted Iredell County state Senator Vickie Sawyer to step forward and talk about several studies now underway to try and find a cause.
Coal ash is the residue left from burning coal and contains toxic heavy metals. The DEQ's Holman said afterward that studies elsewhere have not found a link between the components of coal ash and thyroid cancer.
Holman said despite the unplanned change in format, the meeting was helpful.
“In the end we got a lot of what we were looking for, which is comments from the community. And it didn't go in the way that we had designed it. But we made changes and I think it ultimately worked well,” Holman said.
State officials did not invite Duke Energy to these meetings. In an interview this week, spokesman Bill Norton said Duke’s studies show that all three options protect people and the environment equally. So Duke prefers the less expensive option of capping ash in place.
“If our neighbors, if the community, if the environment are all protected, why in the world would you put our customers through five times the cost and the communities through three decades worth of disruption for the same outcome? It doesn't make sense,” Norton said.
For decades, Duke has stored coal ash at its 14 current and retired coal-fired power plants around the state. A 2014 state law and court orders require Duke to remove the ash at eight of those plants to new lined landfills The DEQ will decide in April how Duke should clean up the other six, including Marshall.
Another hearing like Thursday's is planned January 29th near the Allen Steam Station in Belmont.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to note that only 17 million of the 32 million tons of coal ash at the Marshall plant are subject to clean up. It's in an old coal ash pond on the site. A spokesman says the rest is already in lined landfills.