NC NAACP and SELC Join Residents at NC Coal Ash Town Hall for the US Commission on Civil Rights
Walnut Cove, N.C.–The North Carolina State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, Stokes County NAACP, Appalachian Voices, and the Southern Environmental Law Center will present to the North Carolina Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights at its April 7th Town Hall in Walnut Cove, North Carolina. The groups will highlight the need to prioritize clean-up of one of the largest unlined, leaking coal ash lagoons in the state, and avoid further burdening the local community with other environmental hazards, including preventing hydraulic fracturing.
NC State Conference of Branches President Rev. Dr. William Barber stated, “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. 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 Gregory Hairston. “We stand together in this community in requesting that this leaking site be considered a high priority for clean-up.”
“The lack of clear communication from the state on the drinking water issues has been so frustrating,” remarked Sarah Kellogg, an organizer with Appalachian Voices, who is represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center in the lawsuit to clean up coal ash at the Belews site and who has been working in concert with the local community to document harm from the coal ash. “The health risks and the contamination are the same as they were before, so why are the agencies that are supposed to protect us now saying that it’s ok to drink the contaminated water?”
Just before Easter, Rev. Hairston, Kellogg and over thirty other speakers, including attorneys from Southern Environmental Law Center, 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.
“This community presents a classic case of environmental injustice,” said Southern Environmental Law Center 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 without a fight because the risks they face are too great. Last September, Stokes County voted for a three year ban on hydraulic fracturing. Then, after an election that finally diversified the Walnut Cove Town Board, the Town 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 Belews station,” stated Chandra Taylor, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “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.”
This Town Hall meeting follows a winter briefing of the full Commission of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. This year, in their statutorily mandated report to Congress and the President on the state of Civil Rights enforcement in the nation, they are examining the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) work under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order (E.O.) 12898, with a focus on the civil rights implications of the placement of coal ash disposal facilities near minority and low income communities. “We’re hopeful that the Advisory Committee will make recommendations to the full Commission that require that clean-up at this leaking, unlined site be a high priority,” said Naeema Muhammad, lead organizer with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network “and that requires that the Office of Civil Rights fully investigate whether the state is complying with its civil rights obligations in this case and other cases of environmental injustice in the state.”