Crowd in Forest City calls for full cleanup of Duke Energy’s coal ash

Photo credit: Duke Energy

 By Eliza Stokes, MountainTrue

Of all the questions asked at Forest City’s coal ash hearing last Tuesday, only one was asked to the audience. “Raise your hand if you think cap-in-place is the answer,” asked Luis Martinez, an organizer with the Sierra Club.

No hands were raised.

“And raise your hand if you want excavation.”

Every audience member – about 60 people total – raised their hand.

“Okay, so that’s every hand,” Martinez said, this time to the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) staff at the front of the room. “Now you know.”

Last Tuesday’s NCDEQ meeting at Chase High School gathered public input on how to deal with the remaining 6.5 million tons of coal ash at Duke Energy’s Cliffside site. NCDEQ Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman explained that NCDEQ is currently in the process of deciding between two options – “excavation” or “cap-in-place”. “Excavation” refers to digging up all of the coal ash and moving it to a lined, dry landfill on Duke’s Cliffside property, out of the groundwater and away from the Broad River. “Cap-in-place” refers to leaving the coal ash where it is, sitting deep in the groundwater table, and placing a cap on top.

For an hour and a half, audience members lined up to share questions and comments about the two options. Many were concerned about coal ash’s impact on the surrounding community and groundwater, and multiple speakers asked why North Carolina lags behind South Carolina and Virginia in efforts to clean up coal ash. Duke Energy is required to excavate the coal ash at all of its sites in South Carolina, and just last week, Governor Northam of Virginia announced a bipartisan agreement to remove over 27 million cubic yards of coal ash from unlined ponds near Virginia’s waterways.

Cliffside resident Roger Hollis called for NCDEQ to follow suit by requiring a full cleanup of the site. “The only way Duke will do it is if they get pressure from higher up,” Hollis said. “We know what works, we know what doesn’t. We just need DEQ to do it.”

Patricia Hamrick, another Cliffside resident, asked NCDEQ if any studies had been done over the past forty years on the health impacts of living near coal ash. “In my one block over the past forty years, 14 people have died from cancer,” she said. “You are in charge of our very lives. You cannot let a corporation like Duke Energy tell you what to do.” Assistant Secretary Holman responded that she was not familiar with any studies, but collected Hamrick’s information to follow up with her after the hearing.

Still others questioned Duke Energy’s claims about the impacts of coal ash on the Broad River. Dr. Shea Tuberty, Professor of aquatic ecotoxicology at Appalachian State University, shared results of a study he conducted on the Broad River last year that showed highly elevated levels of arsenic, lead and selenium in fish tissue samples downstream from the Cliffside plant when compared to samples upstream. “Now, you can say there’s nothing to worry about, but the truth is in what is in the animals you’re eating,” Dr. Tuberty said. “Because they’re the ones who are sucking this stuff up slowly in their diets.”

While Duke Energy was not present at the hearing, the company has stated that all closure options will protect the environment and address groundwater pollution concerns. In his comment, Broad River Alliance Coordinator David Caldwell was skeptical. “We know that the active coal ash basin sits in the groundwater and below the level of the river. How can we expect that the exchange between groundwater, ash pond water, and the river won’t continue?”

“Excellent question,” Assistant Secretary Holman responded. “That’s very much what we’re evaluating right now.”


Editor’s Note: There were about 60 people in attendance at the hearing at Chase High School. The hearing consisted of an hour and a half of public comments and questions, with the Department of Environmental Quality representatives lacking substantive answers.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality will receive public comments on the coal ash closure options at until February 15.