North Carolina's endless coal ash nightmare

UPDATED: It's been four years since a devastating spill, and still little action — except rate increases

Published June 20, 2018 5:30PM (EDT)


This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.

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Coal ash is one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in the United States. Depending on the composition of the coal that is being burned, the residue can contain toxic substances. Recently, the byproduct has made its way into political agendas and onto Capitol Hill. But for the state of North Carolina, coal ash is doing far more damage. It’s destroying lives.  

In 2014, Duke Energy was responsible for the third-worst spill of the residue in recorded history. The spill, which ran into the Dan River, affected 70 miles along the North Carolina and Virginia border, with 39,000 tons of the waste product coating the underbelly and floor of the local water supply. In response to the spill, Duke Energy pled guilty the following year to illegally discharging the pollution from coal-ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants and was ordered to pay out $102 million in restitution and fines. 

The process of legally disposing coal ash is complex but regulated, and that is because of what is lurking inside. It can contain toxic chemicals including arsenic, chromium and lead, and if ingested can cause severe health problems such as cancer, and in some cases, death. For the residents of Eden, North Carolina, April 18, 2015 was the day they learned this.

That's when the North Carolina Division of Public Health sent out a letter to inform citizens that it was recommended that their well water not be used for drinking or cooking. The chemical that sparked this warning was vanadium. The substance can be created from burning coal and is known to cause nausea, cramps and diarrhea for individuals who come in contact with it. For Eden residents, more than 45 times the state screening levels of vanadium were found in their drinking water. 

After the distribution of this letter, residents in neighboring community Salisbury, North Carolina began to receive similar letters citing the warning, and this time a new chemical compound was the culprit.

Hexavalent chromium, a chemical that when inhaled or swallowed is carcinogenic, is often known to be found in coal ash. In the early nineties, it famously took center stage in activist and legal clerk Erin Brockovich’s takedown of Hinkley, California’s, Pacific Gas and Electric Company.  Duke has denied the chemical came from its coal ash. (Editor's note: A representative from Duke reached out Salon after this story published to provide its recent findings report and to state, "You’re correct that the state 'do not drink' letters to plant neighbors were driven primarily by hexavalent chromium and vanadium levels in well water. Extensive and thorough studies by the company and outside experts demonstrate these are not originating from ash basins but are from natural geology…. Ash basins are not affecting neighbors’ well water and are certainly not 'poisoning” it.'" A 2016 Scientific American story observed there was no "definitive" link between the Dukeville pits and the contamination.)

Upon receipt of these letters, a state of wariness, misdoubt and all-around alarm quickly set in for residents of North Carolina. And Duke Energy’s plan to help was, in the eyes of many residents, subpar. The electric power company began distributing bottled water to residents to ease concern, but as time has passed, and residents have continued to bathe, drink and cook from bottles of water, frustration has only grown. (Editor's note: A Duke spokesperson replies that "Your story omits that state agencies lifted the “do not drink” guidance in March 2016. So while neighbors may have continued to rely on bottled water after that point, that was their choice. Neighbors were not 'forced' to use bottled water as your story states; rather, some elected to remain on bottled water that the company provided to them for their peace of mind." In January, the Charlotte Observer reported that "Legislators in 2016 ordered the water lines, or installation of filtration systems in some cases, to be completed near Duke power plants statewide by Oct. 15. Until then, many Charlotte-area residents will continue to drink, cook and bathe in the bottled water that Duke gives them.")

By January 11, 2018, several residents living near the power plants had been living on bottled water for 1,000 days, and with no real signs of change on the horizon, they began to take matters into their own hands. Press conferences and rallies were held throughout the state to bring awareness, and demand for immediate change. However, Duke Energy’s response to the outcry and problem they created was to place the burden back on the victims. 

In late January of 2018, Duke Energy announced their plan to clean up the spill, but in order to afford that cleanup, they proposed a rate increase for their customers to cover the costs. According to Duke Energy, "The filing with the NCUC requests to increase revenues by about $647 million, for an overall average rate increase across all customer groups of 13.6 percent. Since Duke Energy Carolinas' last request to adjust rates in North Carolina in 2013, this represents approximately a 2.5 percent annual increase." To break that down, some customers could expect to pay at least an additional $20 a month.

With customer outrage at an all-time high, on February 1, Duke Energy announced their plan to pass along some of the rewards from their $276 million tax savings. But it did not disclose the exact dollar amount in which that would be, providing more confusion and frustration for customers, and still leaving thousands of residents without safe drinking water. In March, the company announced a roughly 4.7 percent average service increase over the next few years. Meanwhile, some local residents received word just a few weeks ago they'd been connected to a municipal water source.

In May, Gov. Roy Cooper and Department of Environmental Quality secretary Michael Regan announced the creation of an Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, comprised of environmental justice and public health experts, to advise the DEQ on ongoing issues like contaminated water. But for now, residents of North Carolina are still demanding the electric power company be held accountable for its actions, and waiting to see if their cries for justice are heard and received.

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By Lauryn Higgins

Lauryn Higgins is a native Tar Heel and currently a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she is Salon's Young American journalist for the state of North Carolina. Her hope is to provide an accurate portrait of the state's current affairs with an organic ethos and an on the ground perspective. Her unwavering belief in authentic truth-telling and passion to make news accessible and understandable for everyone, is what drew her to this project, and to the field of journalism. Website: Twitter @laurynhiggins22 Instagram @laurynhiggins

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