SELC, partners to weigh-in on overlap of coal ash, environmental justice, and fracking issues in NC

How Duke Energy disposes of the coal ash generated at its Belews Creek Steam Station near Walnut Cove, North Carolina, will be the subject of a federal environmental justice town hall tomorrow. (© Duke Energy)

Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station is home to one of the largest, unlined leaking coal ash lagoons in North Carolina. Tomorrow, the nearby town of Walnut Cove will host a town hall for the North Carolina Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights as it continues its investigation into coal ash. SELC and our partners plan to be there to highlight the myriad of local impacts from coal ash and its storage.

Speakers at the town hall, including SELC attorneys, the North Carolina State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, Stokes County NAACP, and Appalachian Voices, plan to emphasize the need to prioritize cleanup of Belews Creek’s leaking coal ash lagoons, and avoid further burdening the local community with other environmental hazards, including hydraulic fracturing.

“Communities of color and low-income communities in Stokes County are suffering from multiple injustices. Their drinking water, their quality of life, and their property values are being severely impacted by the decades of operation of this coal plant and disposal of toxic coal ash in the unlined pits in the county,” said Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the N.C. State Conference of Branches of the NAACP. “Whatever this commission can do to lessen the burden of the people of Stokes County, we ask that they act to do so.”

“People are sick and people are confused about whether their water is safe to drink,” added Stokes County NAACP President, Rev. Gregory Hairston. “We stand together in this community in requesting that this leaking site be considered a high priority for cleanup.”

In late March, Rev. Hairston, joined over thirty other speakers, including SELC attorneys, who voiced concerns to state regulators regarding the Belews Creek coal-fired power plant, coal ash stored there, health concerns of the local community, and risks that remain if no action is taken. That hearing was part of a process, managed by the state, to rank Duke Energy’s North Carolina coal ash storage and determine cleanup priorities.

“This community presents a classic case of environmental injustice,” said SELC Staff Attorney David Neal. “Duke Energy’s unlined coal ash pond at Belews has been leaking toxic pollutants into groundwater every day for decades. Even Duke has admitted that the pollution has migrated off site. The area near the plant is predominantly low-income and of color. Just a few miles west, another predominantly black community is having on-going problems with their well water in Walnut Tree and is being considered as a prime location for the risky practice of hydraulic fracturing, which would certainly put their groundwater supply in great jeopardy.”

The people of Stokes County are not backing down, knowing the risks they face are too great. Last September, Stokes County voted for a three-year ban on hydraulic fracturing. Not long after, the Walnut Cove Town Board followed suit.

“It only makes sense to take the possibility of fracking off the table, particularly in a county with an unlined, leaking coal ash pit as big as the one at the Belews station,” said SELC Senior Attorney Chandra Taylor. “The United States Geological Survey has already said that fracking can cause earthquakes. The dam at the Belews coal ash pond is already unstable, and efforts to fix it have failed. If a fracking induced earthquake causes the dam at the coal ash lagoon to break, people’s lives would be at risk and the drinking water supply of downstream communities would be polluted with toxic coal ash.”

The commission is collecting information from communities around the country—most recently in Alabama—and will submit a report on its findings.

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