Plant Neighbors Worry Coal Ash Won't Be Removed

May 19, 2016

Neighbors of Duke Energy's coal ash ponds in Gaston and Rowan counties say they like Duke's proposal this week to provide safe, permanent water supplies. But they also worry it could mean they’ll have to continue to live with coal ash.

Amy Brown lives in Belmont, near Duke Energy's Allen Steam Station and two ponds filled with coal ash, the toxic residue left after burning coal. Last year, state officials told her to stop drinking or cooking with well water. Hundreds of other coal plant neighbors statewide got similar notices.  

Amy Brown of Belmont spoke at a rally in March.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

  Then in March, the state reversed itself.

"I received a letter from the state that informed me that my water was now safe to use. No new tests had been done on my well,” Brown said.

Brown spoke during a press conference with Democratic lawmakers in Raleigh. She said she wants the coal ash removed. That's what state environmental regulators ordered Wednesday, when they issued final risk ratings for Duke’s coal ash storage ponds. But that could change.

The Department of Environmental Quality also is pushing lawmakers to change the Coal Ash Management Act so those ratings can be revised later if Duke repairs leaking and unstable coal ash ponds. And Duke wants to provide neighbors permanent safe water supplies, in hopes that will persuade regulators it’s OK to cover  ponds, but leave coal ash where it is - called "capping in place."  

Brown likes the idea of getting city water, but that’s not enough.

"The point is, you need to clean it up … you need to clean it up,” Brown says.  

Deborah Graham lives near the Buck plant in Salisbury and agrees.

“We need clean water, but we also need cleanup. That stuff is not going away. It's been there. It continues to contaminate. That capping in place does nothing,” Graham says.  

For now, the state says Duke has to remove ash at all its plants. It's not yet clear if lawmakers will change the law.

General Assembly Democrats are trying other tactics to help plant neighbors. One bill would overturn new state rules that state Senator Mike Woodard says granted leniency to water polluters.

He also says Senate Democrats are pushing for a budget amendment to set a limit on vanadium and chromium in water - two chemicals found in coal ash.  

And he wants a legislative investigation into high-level meetings among state officials who reversed the do-not-drink orders this spring.  Environmentalists recently released a lawsuit deposition of the state epidemiologist, who described the meetings and political pressure. 

“People need to know what happened in those negotiations, what happened in those meetings between Duke Energy officials, the governor, his staff and officials at DEQ and DHHS,” Woodard.

On Wednesday, Duke CEO Lynn Good insisted private wells and groundwater near its coal ash storage sites are safe. Duke wants to avoid removing ash at most of its plants and says it's safe.

But cost is also a worry. Until Wednesday, the company estimated coal ash cleanups could cost $4 billion. If Duke has to remove it, Good says the cost will be much higher.