Federal commission blasts EPA for adding to burdens of disadvantaged citizens

In a recent report, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that the Environmental Protection Agency repeatedly overlooks the undue burden coal ash storage and fracking places on minority and low-income neighborhoods.

In analysis after analysis, it was clear that coal ash storage disproportionately impacts disadvantaged and minority communities, whether the issue was health problems, drinking water concerns, or decreased property values.

One element of the report included findings from the commission’s spring hearing to learn more about coal ash storage in North Carolina. The daylong session was filled with commentary from people like Tracey Edwards who have lived their whole lives near Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plant and leaking, unlined coal ash pits at Belews Creek and other sites across the state.

“When the Duke Energy plant began its operations in the early 1970's, coal ash would fall off—fall on our land, rooftops of our homes, and our vehicles, and cover them worse than the pollen in the springtime around here,” she said. “There are so many stories that people have that has negatively affected their way of life and their health.  It's not just my community, but other Duke Energy coal-fired plants around North Carolina.”

After listening to hours of testimony about residents wiping coal ash off their children's feet before they came inside, and local cancer clusters, and early admissions to nursing homes, a commission subcommittee urged state and federal officials to take bolder action in North Carolina. Their recommendations included:

  • Ranking all Duke Energy leaking, unlined coal ash ponds as high priority, meaning all ponds would be excavated and moved to dry, lined storage and none would be capped-in-place and allowed to pollute in perpetuity.
  • Annexing the predominantly African American community of Walnut Tree into the Town of Walnut Cove, so that the Walnut Tree residents can have a voice in local affairs, particularly concerning their water quality.
  • Expanding groundwater monitoring to detect pollution and protect drinking water sources.

Edwards supports the commission’s additional recommendations to classify coal ash as “special waste” and to provide for more research on health risks associated with exposure to coal ash. 

“The research hasn’t been there,” said Edwards. “Our state government changed its mind about what levels of contaminants, like hexavalent chromium, are acceptable and which are not without any change in what’s in our water.”

The commission shared its findings as part of a larger assessment of the EPA, following up on a 2003 evaluation of the agency’s compliance with the Civil Rights Act and a 1994 executive order directing all federal agencies, including EPA, to identify and address issues of environmental justice in their programs and policies. Sadly, the investigation found no improvement over the agency’s earlier lackluster performance. Instead, they found that, in 9 out of 10 environmental justice cases brought to EPA, the agency either delays indefinitely or hands it off to other groups. In fact, the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has never made a formal finding of discrimination.


See demographic statistics on communities living next to Duke Energy’s coal ash storage here.

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