After tens of thousands of tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River from a waste impoundment at a Duke Energy power plant in North Carolina in 2014, the legislature passed the Coal Ash Management Act requiring the state environmental agency to issue risk ratings for all of the company's coal ash impoundments by the end of 2015 to help set cleanup priorities.
According to a draft report made public last month, the Department of Environmental Quality's professional staff determined that 19 of Duke's 32 coal ash ponds pose a high risk to North Carolina communities, meaning that under the law they'd have to be excavated and the wet ash dried and moved to safer lined landfills by August 2019.
But on New Year's Eve, DEQ officially released the report for public comment — and it listed only eight ponds as high risk. Of the rest, 12 were determined to be of intermediate risk, meaning they must be closed by 2024. Another eight were designated as low-intermediate risk and four as low risk, meaning they could be capped in place and left to leak pollution into groundwater supplies indefinitely.
"Appalled and confused" was how the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash, a coalition formed last year by North Carolina residents affected by Duke Energy's power plant pollution, described its reaction to DEQ's decision to downgrade the risk ratings. The group says all 32 sites should be considered high priority since all of them are leaking pollution to the environment and in some places even contaminating drinking water supplies.
"DEQ changing our priority from high to low-intermediate is just wrong," said Debra Baker, an activist with the group who lives within 100 feet of Duke’s G.G. Allen plant in Belmont, North Carolina. The plant is located on Lake Wylie, a drinking water source for Rock Hill, South Carolina, and other nearby communities. "DEQ says they did not have enough information from Duke Energy, but they have had several months. Now, we are still living on bottled water, waiting for this mess to be cleaned up."
DEQ claims the draft report didn't contain the most up-to-date information, and Secretary Donald van der Vaart criticized the Southern Environmental Law Center for releasing it to the public. The nonprofit has been embroiled in a years-long legal fight with the state to force cleanup of Duke's coal ash pollution.
"I am disappointed that special interest groups attempted to corrupt the process by leaking an early draft that was based on incomplete data," van der Vaart said in a press release.
Move heightens concerns about McCrory's Duke ties
Environmental and good-government advocates have long raised concerns about the unusually cozy relationship between Duke Energy and Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who worked for the Charlotte, North Carolina-based utility for 28 years and has received generous political support from the company.
Heightening those concerns, a WRAL News investigation this week revealed that last June, as the state was negotiating a settlement with Duke for the Dan River coal ash spill, Gov. Pat McCrory (R), van der Vaart and other administration leaders met for a private dinner with Duke CEO Lynn Good and other company officials at the governor's mansion. Neither state officials nor a Duke spokesperson would provide any details about the discussion.
WRAL noted the unusual nature of the meeting and the inability of a McCrory spokesperson to cite examples of similar mealtime get-togethers.
"How in the world can the people of North Carolina believe their government is protecting their water from coal ash pollution when the governor and his secretary of the environment are hosting the polluter for a private dinner at the governor's mansion," SELC Senior Attorney Frank Holleman told WRAL.
A few days after the June 1 dinner gathering, North Carolina regulators announced they had issued permits allowing Duke Energy to dump coal ash from two shuttered coal-fired power plants in Gaston and New Hanover counties into open-pit clay mines in Lee and Chatham counties over the protests of local residents.
ACT Against Coal Ash released a set of principles this week for how the company and state should ensure they are compensated for property damages and protected from future harm. Among them is that coal ash should not be dumped in other communities.
"We are suffering the dumping of 12 million tons of coal ash on our community," said Judy Hogan, president of Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dump and a resident of Moncure, where Duke plans to dump excavated coal ash. "Our state government has forgotten that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not to mention clean air and water."