Walnut Cove and the question of how to deal with millions of tons of coal ash in an unlined basin at the Belews Creek Steam Station became the epicenter of a national debate on environmental justice Thursday.
The North Carolina Advisory Committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a day long hearing on the impact of coal ash on the predominantly lower-wealth and minority community around the plant and its ash impoundments.
The hearing drew three presidentially appointed members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, including Chairman Martin Castro and Vice Chair Patricia Timmons-Goodson, and a variety of panel members ranging from North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Assistant Secretary for the Environment Tom Reeder, Duke Energy representatives, nationally recognized experts on water quality, a variety of environmental groups and many local residents who shared heart-wrenching stories of illnesses they said were caused by coal ash contamination. No elected officials from Stokes County, nor representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, were present at the hearing.
Reeder told the committee that North Carolina was being very proactive in addressing coal ash issues, citing lawsuits and fines against Duke Energy and a series of public hearings recently conducted across the state.
“I am very proud of the progress we have made in the last three years,” he said. “We have 150 million tons of coal ash. We are wrestling with it.”
He noted that Gov. Pat McCrory had recently decided to require an environmental justice screening before any coal ash landfills could be approved by the state.
Duke Energy’s Environmental Affairs Director Mark McIntire told the committee his company was working to close all of its ash basins in the state with a focus on protecting groundwater.
He said the company also provided a variety of grants and donations across the state, but could not identify any recent funding that had been sent to the Pine Hall area or Stokes County.
“I have learned a lot today and will be taking a lot back to our offices,” he said. “There is a lot to think about.”
But the majority of panelists and public speakers said neither Duke Energy nor the DEQ were doing enough to address the coal ash issue, many accusing the DEQ and state government of working to help Duke Energy and not the citizens living near ash ponds.
“Lives are at stake,” said Stokes County NAACP President Rev. Gregory Hairston. He said he had lost a number of family members who lived near the power plant to cancer.
Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Chandra Taylor said federal agencies were required to investigate impacts of environmental issues on communities or color and low income, noting that the area immediately around the Belews Creek facility was made up of 80 to 100 percent people of color.
Caroline Armijo, speaking for Citizens Against Coal Ash, detailed a number of people she said died from illnesses related to coal ash and also commented on the impact to the fish population in Belews Lake saying that 19 fish species had been wiped out.She said Rockingham County had the highest ALS number in the country.
Yadkin River Keeper Will Scott detailed seepages his organization had documented at the Buck Steam Station into the Yadkin River and said that the DEQ was not effectively regulating or prosecuting illegal seeps and discharges.
Peter Harrison, an attorney with the Water Keeper Alliance said governments throughout the country were failing to adequately regulate coal ash.
“It is happening in a million ways,” he said, “but North Carolina has become an example of the many ways government has failed to protect the public. This failure is ongoing and the gaps that remain are many and they are very serious.”
He talked about how the state had tested wells near coal ash ponds, found high numbers of contamination and then extended the testing radius only to again find high numbers of contamination.
“At some point last year the state simply stopped looking and there are many more people who are very much at risk,” he said, noting that changes last month in the accepted levels of some toxins had resulted in the lifting of many do-not-drink orders. “This is patently bad advice.”
Harrison also said the Coal Ash Management Act had set up a system where the potential polluter was responsible for providing the testing.
“Since we have seen Duke Energy plead guilty to federal crimes on ash management in the past year, this is clearly the fox watching the hen house,” he said.
UNC-Chapel Hill professor Rebecca Fry, who is involved in water quality research around the world, told the committee that toxic metals in water had recognized health impacts, especially on children.
Amy Adams, who served as a DEQ regulator before joining the environmental group Appalachian Voices, said the DEQ was being dismantled by the state government.
“I literally grew up in the halls of DENR,” she said. “But the DEQ has become a politicized agency and the citizens of North Carolina have lost out. DEQ press releases read more like a re-election ad.”
Adams noted that in three years the DEQ had yet to require any coal ash pond be cleaned up, noting the ones that are currently being excavated were either ordered to do so by the Coal Ash Management Act or voluntarily selected by Duke Energy.
“We seem no closer today to hearing a clean up plan out of DEQ than we did four years ago,” she said.
Sarah Kellogg, a representative of Appalachian Voices, said the area had higher than average occurrences of heart disease, cancer and neurological problems and said the people who were most oppressed by the issue were also the best positioned to shed light on what justice should look like.
Tracey Edwards, who grew up in the shadow of the steam station, did just that, telling the commission about her, and her mother’s history, of health issues which includes ulcers, strokes, and a heart attack which took her mother’s life.
“Duke Energy promotes poison for profit at the expense of human life,” she said.
Shuntailya Graves, who grew up in the area, said, through tears that the impacts of coal ash had had a direct impact on her family.
“Not one person in my immediate family has been cancer free,” she said. “My grandmother has had thyroid and cervical cancer. My grandfather has had prostate cancer. My aunt has had breast and thyroid cancer. My uncle had skin cancer. My mother was diagnosed with thyroid, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer. She had a full hysterectomy and later was diagnosed with thyroid and brain cancer. She has had nine cancerous brain tumors. Her medicines for 30 day supply are $1,900. Who is going to pay for that? This all comes from coal ash.
“Stop killing our people and stop harming our earth,” she added.
Vernon Zellers, choked by tears, told the commission that he lost his wife after three surgeries for cancer.
“Brain cancer killed her,” he said, noting that he had also seen animals die on his property near the steam station as a result of unidentified neurological diseases. “When am I going to die? Am I next?”
Members of both the state committee and the federal commission said the day of testimony had had a real impact.
Committee member Rick Martinez, who was criticized at times during the day for having worked for McCrory in the past, told Duke Energy’s Environmental Affairs director that he needed to take a message back to his bosses.
“I have heard throughout the day that the only solution is a full excavation,” he said. “Tell your management to start budgeting for that eventuality, not just here but throughout the state.”
Committee Chair Matty Lazo-Chadderton said the local residents had made a meaningful impact with their choices.
“My life has changed today,” she said. “This is a great day and we will see great results from it.”
Members of the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights cautioned that they only had the power to advise the president and Congress, but said they would proudly take the message from Walnut Cove to Washington.
“I must tell you how moved I have been with all of the presentations here today,” said Vice-Chair Timmons-Goodson. “As we prepare our report on environmental justice, much of what we have learned here today will be used.”
“You have made our job so much easier,” agreed Commission member Karen Narasaki. “You have given life to the policy issues that can get so wonky. You have made it clear that in this case it is just about common sense.”
Commission Chairman Martin Castro said the stories hit close to home for him, noting that he had grown up in an predominantly minority area with heavy industry and cancer clusters.
“Don’t tell me there is not a correlation,” he said. “This is not just a constitutional or public policy issue. This is a real life issue. Know your stories did not go un-felt or unnoticed.
“There is something wrong with the system and we need to figure out how to change the system,” he added. “We are going to come up with some strong recommendations and advocate for them. You will have an advocate not just here, but in Washington.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.