This week an environmental advocacy group released a short video that raises questions about whether a Duke Energy power plant and coal ash disposal site in rural North Carolina is making local residents sick.

The video by Boone, NC-based Appalachian Voices focuses on the Belews Creek power plant in Stokes County, which is on the Virginia border north of Winston-Salem. One of Duke Energy's largest coal-fired facilities in the Carolinas, the two-unit plant began operating in the mid-1970s. It's located on Belews Lake, a manmade lake Duke created to provide cooling water for the plant by damming Belews Creek, a tributary of the Dan River. A coal ash spill earlier this year from another Duke Energy power plant has contaminated an 80-mile stretch of the Dan.

The video features interviews with five people who point to unusual patterns of disease in people living near the Belews Creek plant and vanishing wildlife in the area. One of the people interviewed is Danielle Bailey-Lash, who has lived in the Walnut Cove community near the plant for 27 years. Bailey-Lash, who doesn't smoke or drink, was diagnosed with Stage 3 brain cancer at age 35 and given three to four months to live. She's now in remission.

"Even though I've put that behind me, I'm starting to make a connection," she says. "Something is not right."

Watch the video here:


The Belews Creek plant has undoubtedly taken a toxic toll on the local ecosystem. In 2012 alone, the most recent year for which information is available, the plant reported releasing to the air almost 900,000 pounds of toxic pollutants, including more than 400 pounds of arsenic, 950 pounds of chromium, 530 pounds of lead, and 19 pounds of mercury, according to the company's self-reported Toxics Release Inventory filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The plant also reported releasing 13,700 pounds of toxic chemicals to surface waters in 2012, and over 666,000 pounds of toxic chemicals in the surface impoundments where it stores coal ash. Groundwater monitoring near the pits where the plant stores its coal ash waste has shown levels of toxic heavy metals that exceed state groundwater standards, with chromium at 50 percent over limits, iron at 4,600 percent over limits, and manganese at 7,100 percent over limits.

"I do not feel that the state is properly keeping tabs on it, the contamination that we're receiving here in the water tables and also in some of the ash pits that we have in the local area," resident McKinnley Warren says in the video.

The video comes amid mounting pressure on Duke Energy to address its coal ash and broader coal pollution problems. Today the company is holding its annual shareholder meeting in Charlotte, where protests are planned and where two pastors will deliver a letter signed by 72 clergy members from Western North Carolina calling on the company to transition away from coal.

The day before the meeting, North Carolina Treasurer Janet Cowell, who oversees a pension fund that holds about $30 million in Duke Energy stock, wrote a letter to Duke calling on the company to remove director Carlos Saladrigas from board's regulatory oversight committee and replace him with someone who has environmental remediation experience. Cowell also called on the board to commission an independent firm to investigate the Dan River spill.

Meanwhile, Duke Energy is the target of a TV commercial sponsored by the Latino advocacy group Presente.org and The Other 98% criticizing the company's efforts to discourage installation of rooftop solar power systems by making them more expensive. Other commercials sponsored by the national Sierra Club that are airing in Charlotte and Asheville markets urge the utility to "move beyond coal."

And a petition drive coordinated by the group SumOfUs is calling on Duke Energy to disclose its political spending in light of concerns about the close ties between the company and the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who previously worked for the company for over 28 years. A federal probe launched after the Dan River disaster is looking into that relationship.