News | May 3, 2016

Residents ask to be heard after N.C. DEQ coal ash failures

SELC’s Chandra Taylor calls for civil rights investigation into North Carolina’s handling of coal ash

North Carolinians recently gave powerful voice to the civil rights, health, and environmental impacts of coal ash from Duke Energy’s Belews Creek station and other unlined, leaking coal ash storage sites across the state. The North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights convened a Town Hall earlier this month in Walnut Cove to deepen their understanding of the environmental injustices related to coal ash disposal.

An unusually large group of representatives were on hand at the meeting held to listen and examine the adverse impact of coal ash on communities of color in North Carolina. In attendance from the federal commission were the Chairperson, Martin Castro; Vice-Chairperson, Patricia Timmons-Goodson; and Commissioner Karen Narasaki. They were joined by the following members of the state advisory committee: Chairperson Matty Lazo-Chadderton; former Governor McCrory staffer Rick Martinez; Thealetta Monet; and Olga Wright.

In her presentation to the committee, Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Chandra Taylor asked that the commission recommend the “EPA vigorously investigate whether the state is incompliance with all laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

“The current administration’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has done more to obstruct citizen suits aimed at cleaning up coal ash, and more to create bureaucratic delay of coal ash cleanup,” testified SELC attorney Chandra Taylor. “This administration needs to stop playing politics and listen to the people of North Carolina who are clearly saying that their communities are high priority and calling for the removal of coal ash to stop the ongoing pollution of our rivers, lakes, and drinking water sources. The truth of the matter is this DEQ has not required one ounce of coal ash to be cleaned up that Duke Energy hadn’t already agreed to clean up.”

During the daylong town hall, SELC attorneys Myra Blake and Frank Holleman, Peter Harrison of Waterkeeper Alliance, Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott, and Amy Adams and Sarah Kellogg of Appalachian Voices detailed how this administration has repeatedly failed the residents and people of North Carolina and the communities nearby and downstream from Duke Energy’s leaking, unlined coal ash sites.

“We seem no closer today to hearing a plan out of DEQ than we did four years ago,” noted Adams.

Again and again throughout the day, speakers pointed out that the administration has not held Duke Energy accountable, in large part because Duke Energy has too much influence on McCrory’s administration. Another repeated concern was the recent finding that Duke Energy skewed modeling of groundwater near the Buck power plant to facilitate their finding that wells near the plant are not affected by the ash basin.

“This administration’s done nothing to save our kids’ lives,” said David Hairston, who owns property in a community near Duke’s Energy’s leaking coal ash pits at Belews Creek.

Hairston and SELC’s Chandra Taylor shared a panel with DEQ Deputy Secretary Tom Reeder, who attended the daylong event only for the one hour required to give his own testimony. All three were in front of the commission when Commissioner Rick Martinez, a former staffer for Governor Pat McCrory, posed a question to Taylor about comparing political administrations, then cut her off.  The video below shows how Hariston picked up the reply after Taylor was cut short.

Concerned residents filled the meeting room, overflowing into adjacent areas and standing for hours as people listened and waited to speak, some having traveled from communities near other leaking coal ash sites. They overwhelmingly asked that the Civil Rights Commission help them get the coal ash removed from the unlined, leaking pits where Duke Energy stores it now so it stops polluting their groundwater, lakes, rivers, communities, and homes. They overwhelmingly rejected DEQ’s low and low-intermediate priority designation of communities near leaking coal ash sites, including Walnut Cove and Walnut Tree, as well as communities downstream of Belews Creek, including Eden and Madison. They overwhelmingly rejected Duke Energy’s proposed plan to leave the coal ash in unlined, leaking pits sitting in groundwater next to Belews Lake as well as at other sites across North Carolina.

“Somebody needs to wake up,” said Doris Smith, who lives nearby. “I’m not no smart woman and don’t claim to be one, but I got some common sense. I was raised up the rough way, and just want people to know that I want this to be a high priority … and I don’t want them to do anything to this ash. I want it moved. Get it out of here because it’s affecting people every day.”

Reverend Dr. Rodney Sadler, Associate Professor of Bible from Union Presbyterian Seminary, Chair of the Healthcare Committee for the North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Vice Chair of the national organization Justice Action Mobilization Network, added another voice to those of the residents, scientific and legal experts, and the advocates who spoke before the commission throughout the day.

“God has something to say about allowing chemicals like hexavalent chromium, arsenic, cadmium, and lead to contaminate the soil whence crops are grown, and the water that is used for human consumption,” said Sadler. “God has something to say about the burden placed on poor urban and rural communities when unsealed coal ash is left untreated because a site is not labeled ‘high priority.’”

He continued.

“God has something to say about declaring well water to be clean and drinkable that was determined to be hazardous, not because it has been cleaned up or the contamination problem has been solved, but simply because a different standard was identified that declared the levels of toxins to be marginally acceptable. God has something to say about the corporate and state policies that we use that adversely impact vulnerable communities and that put profits over people when it comes time to ascribe blame for willful negligence.”

At the end of a day filled with emotional testimony, Senior Attorney Frank Holleman shared some final thoughts. He pointed out that the coal ash issue is not that complicated: Duke Energy has stored millions of tons of industrial waste containing arsenic, lead, and mercury in unlined, water-filled pits in our groundwater and next to drinking water sources held back only by dirt dikes that leak.

“Storing coal ash in leaking, unlined holes in the ground as DEQ has allowed and proposes to allow going forward is a bad way to store industrial waste,” Holleman said. “And there is a simple solution, and that is to move it to safe, dry, lined storage as is being done right now in South Carolina.”

Listen to audio of the testimony from the day here.

Read more about the hearing through local news coverage.

Our view: Time for action on coal ash, Winston-Salem Journal

Federal hearing on coal ash held in Walnut Cove, The Stokes News

Forum held on coal ash civil rights violations, WXII

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ chairman to residents near coal ash: You will have an advocate, Winston-Salem Journal