Broken Ground | Season 1 | Episode 2

The Real Housewives of Coal Ash

When two North Carolina women received letters from state officials that their water wasn’t safe to drink due to coal ash pollution, they fought it all the way to the state house.

Episode Transcript

When two North Carolina women received letters from state officials saying their water wasn’t safe to drink due to coal ash pollution, they fought it all the way to the state house.




By Emily Richardson-Lorente


HOST: On January 2nd, 2020, the Southern Environmental Law Center reached an historic settlement with Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. After years of work, nearly eighty million tons of toxic coal ash across the state of North Carolina will now have to be dug up and stored safely. It’s the largest coal ash cleanup in America’s history. This Broken Ground podcast episode that aired in May of 2019 is the story of two women among the many citizens at the heart of the fight to get to this important environmental moment. We hope you’ll enjoy it.


AMY BROWN: We’ve done a lot of interviews from this kitchen table.


DEBORAH GRAHAM: We gather coal ash information to attend hearings and conferences and we do a LOT at this kitchen table, it’s been really part of our past for the last 4 years.


CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: Tell me what you all call yourselves.


DEBORAH: We are the real housewives of coal ash. Wasn’t a name that we wanted, but it kind of, it kind of fits who we are.


HOST:  This is a story about two North Carolina women — Deborah Graham and Amy Brown — and the environmental disaster that poisoned their water, undermined their faith in government, and ultimately led them to take on their state and its biggest power company. The “real housewives of coal ash” have a lesson to teach us all: that coal ash pits don’t have to fail catastrophically to cause a catastrophe.




HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the south and the people unearthing them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain. In our last episode, we looked back at an historic environmental disaster: the 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, when 7 million tons of toxic coal ash burst into a neighborhood overnight, destroying homes and poisoning water. Now a decade later, more than 40 clean-up workers are dead and hundreds are sick with illnesses linked to the ash.


JAMIE SATTERFIELD: They showed up for work and they trusted their employers and now they’re sick and dying and no one will take responsibility for it.


HOST: If you missed that episode, we hope you’ll have a chance to go back and listen.




HOST: In this episode, we look at another kind of coal ash disaster. The kind that happens so slowly that it’s easy to miss: coal ash pits leaking toxins into our drinking water. With 40% of the country’s toxic coal ash stored here in the southeast, this is the kind of slow-motion disaster that could affect any of us, just the way it did Deborah Graham and Amy Brown. In April 2015, Amy Brown received an unexpected letter at her home in Belmont, North Carolina.


AMY: When I received this letter I was sitting at this same kitchen table that we’re sitting at today. And I opened it up and — I’m not a chemist, you know, I’m a mother, I stay at home with my children — so when I opened this letter there was a lot of it that I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand what some of the abbreviations meant, a lot of numbers. But what I did understand very clearly was the recommendation not to use the water. And in that very moment, my life changed.


HOST: Amy’s well water had been tested because of her home’s proximity to the Allen Steam Station, one of 14 coal-fired power plants built by Duke Energy in the state. The test revealed unexpectedly high levels of a cancer-causing chemical called hexavalent chromium. If you’ve ever heard of Erin Brokovich, that’s the chemical she was fighting, too. It’s one of many toxins found in coal ash.


AMY: I started immediately thinking about, ‘How much water have my children been exposed to? How many pacifiers did I rinse off and put back in my children’s mouth still wet? How many bottles did I wash in this water that contains a heavy metal that is known to cause cancer?’


HOST: Do-not-drink letters were arriving in select mailboxes all over the state. Deborah Graham lives an hour away from Amy, in Salisbury, North Carolina, on the same road as the Buck Steam Station coal ash pits. She and her husband got a letter too.


DEBORAH: I remember getting up and going over and standing at my kitchen sink and looking out the window. On Dukeville Road where I live, it’s one road in, and one way out down to the plant. And I just recall washing dishes and standing there for years and years, I’ve lived there 33 years now, and I could visualize seeing a water truck, a water delivery truck, going down to the plant. And my next thought was, how long did Duke Energy know that the water was contaminated? I didn’t know, but I did call my neighbor who worked down at the plant, he’s retired now, and I asked him how long the plant had been getting bottled water at that time. This was April 18th, 2015 about 11:30 a.m. And he said, “Deborah, the plant’s been getting water for about 18 years.”


HOST: It may mean nothing that the Duke plant had bottled water delivered — lots of companies do — but you can imagine how that realization would have landed like a gut-punch for Deborah after the letter she’d just read. That day at the kitchen sink was the first day she began buying bottled water, and the last day she would trust the water from her faucets. Who knows how long Deborah and Amy’s water was being contaminated? Environmentalists had been warning of contamination and asking Duke Energy to clean up their coal ash pits for years. The testing finally happened, though, because a new state law required it. And that law was only enacted because of THIS incident:


NEWS CLIP #1/WNCN: A Duke Energy pipe collapsed, gushing tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into the river …


NEWS CLIP #2/MORNING EDITION: … a broken pipe funneled 30,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina …


NEWS CLIP #3/ALL THINGS CONSIDERED: … it is the third biggest coal ash spill in U.S. history and the pipe is still leaking …


FRANK HOLLEMAN: This is what happened. Duke had this coal-fired plant near the Virginia border, sitting on the Dan River.


HOST: This is my colleague Frank Holleman, an environmental lawyer and a coal ash expert from the Southern Environmental Law Center.


FRANK: And they had an unlined pit where they were just dumping all the coal ash after they burned the coal. And believe it or not, they built that lagoon sitting on top of a corrugated metal storm water pipe. Everyone knows corrugated metal rots over time and to put millions of tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of water sitting on top of a corrugated metal pipe was foolish. As one legislator asked Duke later, “Wasn’t that stupid?” and I think everybody in the room agreed it was stupid.


HOST: Frank and his team had been pressing Duke to clean up its coal ash pits for more than a year prior to the Dan River spill. But the utility had repeatedly refused.


FRANK: And what we learned later is that the people on the ground working at this plant put in a request to upper management repeatedly for a few thousand dollars to inspect these pipes, and repeatedly they were refused that money.


HOST: So not only did Duke Energy ignore the environmental lawyers asking it to clean up its leaking coal ash pits, it ignored its own employees. And the state had done almost nothing to stop them.


FRANK: Well, it became a massive public scandal because the state of North Carolina actually joined forces with Duke Energy to try to stop the citizens from enforcing the law.


HOST: If that sounds like an exaggeration to you, consider this: under the Clean Water Act, regular people — like you and me — are allowed to sue polluters, but only if the state doesn’t sue the polluters first. And if we do sue, we’re obligated to give 60 days’ notice first. That’s what the Southern Environmental Law Center did three times before the Dan River spill, for 3 separate coal ash sites in North Carolina. And each time, by day 59, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality tried to preempt the citizen suit by filing their own suit. In one instance, the penalty that the state imposed was so small — less than $100,000 for a company that earned nearly three billion that year — that it looked to a lot of folks following this issue that the state was letting Duke off the hook. Which, of course, the state denied. At a press conference the month after the spill, John Skvarla, the Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources — which at the time was also called DENR — said this:



JOHN SKVARLA: Any implication or any allegation that DENR and Duke got together and made some smoky backroom deal with a nominal fine is just absolutely not true.


HOST: But the state also acknowledged they’d known that many of Duke’s coal ash pits had been leaking for years. At that same press conference, Tom Reeder, the state’s water quality head, said this about forcing Duke to stop the leaks:


TOM REEDER: We’re still assessing the situation. I mean if we really want to do that, I guess we could do that.


HOST: So why didn’t the state force Duke to clean up the leaks? Well, here’s some food for thought: Governor Pat McCrory spent nearly 30 years working for Duke and still owned stock in the company. Duke Energy, like many power producers in the south, was a large campaign contributor to both Republicans and Democrats. Maybe the state really didn’t understand the risk. Whatever the reason, the situation was serious enough that the U.S. Justice Department launched a criminal investigation looking into Duke Energy’s management of its coal ash lagoons. The first subpoenas went out 12 days after the spill.

In the months directly after the Dan River spill, state legislators scrambled to act in the face of mounting public pressure. They passed a new law: the Coal Ash Management Act. It set a schedule for closing all of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds over the next 15 years. And it mandated testing of wells within 1,000 feet of every coal ash pond across the state — not just those near the Dan River. Which is why 15 months after the spill, Deborah and Amy received their disturbing test results. Meanwhile, Duke Energy denied any link between the poisoned well water and its coal ash pits. Here’s Amy again.


AMY: So I immediately started calling the state, calling Duke Energy and I would ask them to provide me with bottled water. And every day I would get an excuse. Every. Single. Day. Until finally I was on a baseball field with one of my children who was there for baseball practice and I got a phone call from Duke Energy. He sympathized, he was a very nice person. He then said that if Duke Energy provides me or my neighbors with bottled water then that would be Duke Energy taking a risk.


CLAUDINE: And so what he’s saying to you, it sounds like, is we don’t want to admit that we’re responsible for this by providing bottled water.


AMY: Well that wasn’t good enough to me, so I told him that he had until Monday morning to provide my family with bottled water. And he said, “Well, you know, Ms. Brown I just don’t know that we, you know …” and I said, “No sir, if you do not provide me with bottled water, then I will give every news reporter who is riding around my neighborhood, looking for a story your home phone number — and which you just called me from — and they can call you and ask you why my family doesn’t have safe water. So I need to have bottled water on my doorstep Monday morning.”


HOST: That Monday, a truck delivered 480 bottles of water to Amy’s family — enough to last 2 weeks. But, for the older folks next door? The driver told them they’d have to put in their own request.


AMY: This flew all over me. But I went inside that very day and I grabbed my notebooks with all the contact numbers from Raleigh to Duke to everybody in between, and I put my two-year old son in a stroller and I started going door to door and so I made sure that if they wanted bottled water that they had the number to call to request that bottled water. And then it just grew from there, you know, from my neighborhood, it went to the next neighborhood, where I knew no one. But I would go and take my child and knock on those doors.


CLAUDINE: Did other people start helping you or were you doing this all on your own?


AMY: I was doing it all on my own with my two-year old son.


CLAUDINE: Every day?


AMY: Every day.


CLAUDINE: Deborah, you also got a letter. Was your story similar to Amy’s?


DEBORAH: I didn’t even know that we could request the bottled water at that time. We had been buying water, my neighbors had been buying water. There was maybe 26, 27 people in my house between reporters and lawyers back in April, but I still didn’t have water.


HOST: Deborah actually held a press conference from her kitchen table 3 days after receiving her letter. That’s how Amy first heard of her.


AMY: One of the neighbors gave me this news article that was featuring Deborah Graham and this information that was being given from her house, I was blown away. I just had no idea the power that she was going to bring. And then we started talking to each other over the phone, talking about a meeting coming up, writing speeches. You know, this become a full time job.


WELCOME TO DUKEVILLE  (Protest @ NCDEQ public comment event in 2016)

DEBORAH: We are here today to express our concerns about the leaking coal ash pits that surround our homes …



AMY: As a concerned mother, I am doing everything I know to do to protect my children …



DEBORAH: Our eyes were all open after the Dan River spill in 2014, and I feel like we are just now starting to understand the effects that coal ash has had on our communities …

HOST: In the months after the do-not-drink letters, as Deborah and Amy are trying to get used to living on bottled water — with pallets of it lining their kitchens and living rooms and front porches — they assume that Duke and the state regulators are working towards a long-term fix. Here’s Deborah.


DEBORAH: We trusted our state to protect us, until March 11th, 2016, when we all got a letter saying, “Your water is now safe to drink.”


HOST: That second letter arrived 11 months after the first.


DEBORAH: Nothing had changed, no one else had come out and done another well test. How could it be? I called my health department immediately, my well guy there, the supervisor, told me personally, he would not use my water for drinking or cooking.


HOST: The only thing that HAD changed between the 1st and 2nd letter was that North Carolina officials — over the objections of a state toxicologist — had decided to use a less stringent drinking water standard. They basically said ‘turns out more cancer-causing hexavalent chromium in your water is okay. Go ahead, drink up.’ To Deborah and Amy, this was a sign that neither Duke nor the state could be trusted. Remember that federal criminal investigation that started after the Dan River spill? Well, it ended badly for Duke. Here’s Frank Holleman again.


FRANK: Duke Energy’s operating companies in North Carolina pleaded guilty 18 times to nine coal ash crimes, paid over $100,000,000 fine and remain on criminal probation today. They’ve been sued 10 or 15 times by public groups in North Carolina. And even today, Duke continues to fight in the courts and through lobbyists to try to avoid having to do the right thing. And you have to ask the question why do they keep hitting themselves over the head with this coal ash issue?


HOST: Thanks to multiple lawsuits, Duke Energy was forced to begin the process of moving some of its North Carolina coal ash to lined landfills, but it continued to fight to leave the ash in place, in leaking, unlined pits, at the Allen plant near Amy Brown’s house, and at five other plants around the state. Eventually the mounting legal and public pressure led the state of North Carolina to order Duke to excavate coal ash from ALL of its unlined pits. But as of this recording, Duke Energy isn’t planning to follow the state’s orders and says it will appeal.


(Countdown for Buck Steam Station demolition)


HOST: As for the coal plant near Deborah — the Buck Steam Station — Duke leveled that last year as part of its ongoing transition off of coal.


(Sound of Buck Steam Station blowing up)


HOST: But retiring a coal plant doesn’t make the ash disappear; in fact, utilities would just as soon leave it where it is. So where should it go?


FRANK: That’s a good question. People often ask well, what’s going to happen to it if it leaves these lagoons, what happens to it? And the answer is one of two things: recycle it into concrete or cement, or move it to safe, dry, lined storage away from the rivers, separated from the groundwater, just like we have to store every other kind of waste in America — even tomato peelings and pizza crust.


HOST: An alternative to sending coal ash to landfills is repurposing it into concrete. Adding coal ash actually makes concrete sturdier and cheaper to produce. In fact — this may blow your mind like it did mine — the U.S. actually IMPORTS coal ash from China, India and Poland for this exact purpose. Most of the 6.5 million tons of ash left at Buck will be reprocessed and sold for recycling into concrete. But, Duke only plans to recycle a fraction of its existing coal ash state wide because, it says, it’s just too expensive to dig up, reprocess and transport. Much of the rest, it wants to “cap in place” — meaning they leave it where it is, drain off the standing water, and cover it with a specially made, heavy-duty tarp. That may prevent the ash from blowing away, but it doesn’t prevent it from continuing to leak toxins through the ground. And it doesn’t eliminate the threat from  storms or rising flood waters. It’s clear to Deborah Graham and many other North Carolina residents what needs to happen.


DEBORAH: They need to remove the threat in order for the danger to go away.


HOST: Whether or not the ash is removed in the short term, the long-term effects of prolonged exposure to the toxins may still take years to emerge — as it did with the coal ash cleanup workers in Kingston, Tennessee. In 2015, EPA finally published its first-ever national coal ash regulation — the one it had promised seven years earlier, after Kingston. The most important question they had to answer after 35 years of research was this: is coal ash hazardous waste or isn’t it? It determined it wasn’t, which means coal ash can be managed in much the same way as your household trash.


FRANK: The federal government did put in place some decent — not great — but decent minimum national standards to govern these coal ash problems, but the people who are now in charge of the EPA are working hard to weaken them. So I don’t think we can count on any help from Washington. But there have been citizens across the southeast, including Deborah Graham and Amy Brown who have stood up and spoken the truth and have taken on the risk to advocate for their communities and their neighborhoods. They are genuine heroes.


HOST: Nearly four years after Amy and Deborah received their do-not-drink letters and started advocating for clean water, they still can’t drink from their wells. But in 2018, Duke Energy DID meet a state-mandated deadline to hook them up to city water. But after living on bottled water for more than 1,400 days, it’s hard for Deborah to trust the water from her faucets.


DEBORAH: Even though now we do have city water, which is under a different umbrella, I do not use the city water for cooking or drinking. A lot of families across our state are still buying now bottled water because we are water scared.


HOST: And that’s not the worst of it.


CLAUDINE: Deborah, do you feel comfortable talking to me about your cancer diagnosis?


DEBORAH: I found out just this past year. I had not been feeling well. I made an appointment and, um, went to the doctor. He did a, um, exam — a female exam. And he said, “Ms. Graham, I believe you have cancer, uterus cancer.” He said, “Ms. Graham are you OK?” I didn’t look at him or anything. I was visualizing having to tell my husband, my daughter, my best friend Amy Brown. And then I started seeing all the things that my life, that I wasn’t going to be here to see. I’m not saying that it came from Duke — I can’t say it came from the water, but you know what? I can’t say that it did not. There’s been no kind of medical monitoring on any of the people that’s lived around these pits. I didn’t even know that these pits even leaked. I don’t hate Duke Energy, I just want them to do the right and responsible thing. Duke Energy says that this is like household trash. I’ve lived at my house 32 years, I have paid a little garbage man to come by every week and pick up my trash. Duke Energy for decades has not paid anybody to come by and pick up their trash.


AMY: You know, we may not have known about the dangers 20, 30, 40 years ago. And I can’t blame people for not knowing. But we know better now. And just like I tell my children and I’m sure that you tell yours, when you know better, it is your job to do better.


HOST: Here’s the thing about environmental problems: they often don’t make the news until catastrophe hits. Had the Dan River spill never happened, it’s possible that Deborah Graham and Amy Brown and their neighbors would STILL be drinking from contaminated wells. They just wouldn’t know it.


After years of supplying bottled water to residents, fighting lawsuits and paying millions of dollars in fines, Duke Energy continues to insist that their coal ash pits are NOT the source of the well contamination found in North Carolina.




HOST: Next time on Broken Ground …


JOHN LAURY: How many tons of poison do we have to breathe? How much noise do we have to listen to, involving this proposed compressor station?


NINA EARNEST: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s put together by Emily-Richardson Lorente, Nina Earnest, Jennie Daley, and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. Our theme music is by Eric Knutson. The archival interview clips you heard in this episode were found at WNCN-TV and NPR.