The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights says coal ash ponds and landfills disproportionately affect poor and minority communities across the U.S. But that’s not what North Carolina officials found when they conducted their own “environmental justice reviews” of two sites this year.
Duke Energy faces a 2019 deadline to move coal ash from existing pits to new, lined landfills at some North Carolina coal plants. It's already applied for permits at two - Dan River in Eden and the Sutton plant in Wilmington.
Landfills like these are often in poor and minority areas, particularly in the South, says Therese Vick, a community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.
“They don't get sited in Chapel Hill. They don’t get sited in north Raleigh, really. They get sited in rural communities, typically, that are poor,” Vick says.
Earlier this year, federal civil rights officials held hearings on the issue around the country. And in a new report, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called on officials to consider civil rights impacts when they approve plans for moving and storing coal ash.
In April, North Carolina regulators said they’d start requiring environmental justice reviews before permit approvals. Reports are now out on the first two permits – at Duke Energy’s Sutton Plant in Wilmington and Dan River plant in Eden. The reports say new coal ash landfills there won’t unfairly affect anyone based on age, race, income or language.
But environmentalists say the reviews aren't worth much. Vick says there's no mechanism to deny a permit on environmental justice grounds.
"It's an empty process," Vick says.
She thinks it's more about public relations.
“One has to wonder what they're up to. I would like to believe that they are trying to push EPA into doing something about environmental justice. But I don't believe that’s the case,” she says.
Vick says the Sutton study looked at a limited area around the landfill, and failed to include a low-income neighborhood just a few hundred feet away.
State officials haven't said when they'll rule on the two permits. Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks says Duke expected to get the permits months ago.
“If we don't receive the permits, for Sutton plant especially, in the next few months, we'll have to evaluate our current work plan and our ability to meet the state's deadline,” he says.
That deadline is in three years.