Hundreds of people crowded public hearings in Rowan and Gaston counties Tuesday night for a chance to tell regulators what they think of coal-ash ponds near their homes. At Gaston College, more than 30 speakers raised concerns about the ash stored for the past 60 years next to Duke’s Allen Steam Station, in Belmont.
With the exception of one Duke Energy official, all wanted the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to require Duke to move the coal ash away from wells and waterways.
Coal ash is the residue left after burning coal. It contains potentially hazardous heavy metals such as chromium, vanadium and lead which can leach into ground water.
Belmont resident Amy Brown is among dozens of Allen plant neighbors currently getting bottled water from Duke because their wells are contaminated. She hopes the DEQ won’t let Duke keep the ash where it is.
“I will still be surrounded, my neighbors will still be surrounded, by these toxic chemicals. And that doesn’t do us any good whatsoever,” Brown said.
Last year, Brown and other residents got letters from state environmental officials telling them their water from their wells wasn’t safe to drink, because it contained high levels of heavy metals found in coal ash. Then two weeks ago, the state reversed itself. Brown and other speakers said they don’t believe the “do not drink orders” and are continuing to drink bottled water.
[A Duke Energy spokeswoman said earlier Tuesday the company eventually will stop supplying water. “At this point, Duke energy is continuing to provide bottled water to about 400 residences across the state,” Duke’s Catherine Butler said. “We do plan to have conversations with neighbors about a schedule for potentially stopping that delivery of water over the coming months.” ]
Plant neighbor Debra Baker said her husband died of lung disease in 2008 and she had a heart attack in 2014. No other Duke plant has had as many wells affected by coal ash as Allen.
“The plant is 60 years old, and has long been documented to be leaking. Over 114,000 people rely on drinking water intakes immediately downstream,” Baker said.
In a draft of the classifications Dec. 31, state officials said they lacked enough information to recommend an exact rating for Allen. They labeled the plant’s coal ash pits as “intermediate to low.” An intermediate or high rating would require Duke to move the ash to a new lined landfill off site. A low rating would allow Duke to consolidate and secure the ash on site.
Neighbor Bill Collins thinks Allen’s ponds should be rated “high risk.”
“Here’s why: The coal ash is stored in unlined, leaking and seeping settlement ponds, which continuously create a hazard to the area aquifer and to the Catawba River and Lake Wylie,” he said.
The hearings were among 14 that environmental regulators are holding around the state this month seeking comment on proposed risk classifications for Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.
Duke officials have said they’d like to drain and cover the coal ash ponds near the Allen plant, sometimes called “cap in place.”
Duke District Manager Tim Gause said Duke is working to close all its coal ash storage sites around the state.
“We’re closing them in ways that put safety first, protect the environment, minimize impact on the communities and manage costs,” Gause said.
Regulators are ranking sites high, intermediate or low risk. The ratings determine how soon Duke must clean up each site, and whether ash must be moved or can be kept where it is.
More than 170 people attended a similar hearing last night in Salisbury, on cleaning up coal ash at Duke’s Buck Steam Station.
The state is accepting written comments on the classifications through April 18, and could issue final risk ratings later this spring.
Jan. 8, 2016, Department of Environmental Quality announcement, “Draft Proposed Classifications Public Meeting Information”
Duke Energy coal ash information page, http://www.duke-energy.com/ash-management/
March 21, 2016, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation response to NC’s lifting of “do not drink” orders. The group says its own analysis contradicts the state's ruling that wells near some plants are as safe as public drinking water supplies elsewhere.