Over 150 people turned out Thursday night to demand that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) change its draft risk assessment of the Belews Creek ash impoundment from low-to-intermediate risk to high risk during a public hearing at the Stokes County courthouse.
The hearing was an opportunity for local residents to share their views on the DEQ’s risk assessment before the department makes a final determination later this year.
Toby Vinson, with the DEQ’s Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources, told the speakers that the risk classification would determine how and when coal ash impoundments across the state were cleaned up. A high risk ranking would require excavation of the Belews Creek site by the end of 2019, an intermediate risk would require excavation by the end of 2024, and a low risk assessment would allow the site to be capped in place by 2029.
Vinson said the low-to-intermediate classification currently assigned to the facility was due to incomplete data provided by Duke Energy, noting that the site had incomplete capture zone modeling for up-gradient and side-gradient supply wells, incomplete geochemical modeling, and incomplete background concentration determinations. Additionally, he said the horizontal and vertical extent of contamination downgradient was not well defined, potential contamination resulting from the on-site landfill and structural fill were not addressed and the groundwater flow in bedrock was not well defined.
Out of the 35 people who spoke on the issue only one, Duke Energy spokesman Jimmy Flythe, did not demand a change in the risk assessment.
Flythe told DEQ officials that the company was dedicated to safely closing all coal ash basins in the state with a focus on protecting groundwater.
“Closure plans will ensure the material remains safely stored for the future,” he said. “We’ll make sure the final solution remains effective during extreme weather, like storms and flooding. If the science says we should excavate the material, then we will look first to whether we can direct that to an on-site lined landfill rather than transporting it to a new location off-site.”
He said the company was also exploring new ways to recycle the ash and wanted to work closely with the local community.
“Ensuring the safety of our neighbors and communities is our top priority,” he said.
The best way to do that, according to the other 34 speakers, is to declare the facility a high risk and force Duke Energy to excavate the 20 million tons of coal ash stored at the facility.
The concerns from the community ranged from the impact of decades of fly ash falling in the Pine Hall area to worries over decreasing property values to personal stories of lost loved ones.
“We are suffering right now,” said Vernon Zellers. “We don’t have water you can drink. Some of my neighbors can’t even give the water to their horses or livestock. How do we get some help? As an investment in my life this is my home. When I die my estate will be worth zero.”
ACT Against Coal Ash member Nick Wood said the situation was a crisis.
“People are dying and they know it,” he said, noting that a lack of data should not dictate a lower risk rating for the facility. “When I got an incomplete in school it meant I was going to fail.”
Local resident Tracey Edwards said she had lost her mother to illnesses she believed were a result of coal ash contamination.
“A lot of people are afraid to speak up because they are afraid of retaliation from Duke, but I have nothing left to lose,” she said. “We are in a fight for our lives. Our water is important to us. We need it for survival.”
Brenda Lapeyrolerie said the coal ash, which she believes is causing grey, sludgy water at her house where tests have shown high levels of manganese, iron, hexavalent chromium and arsenic, is not just impacting the humans living the Pine Hall area.
“I have noticed a lot of vegetation seems to be dying,” she said. “It is also an issue for the wildlife.”
Attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center provided a number of reasons why the preliminary risk level should be elevated.
Chandra Taylor said Title Six of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should force DEQ to increase the rating.
“It prevents discrimination in the use of federal funds including environmental decision making which would result in a discriminatory impact,” She said. “The census block group where the Belews Creek station is located has a higher percentage of minorities than the state at large. It is 74 percent minority compared to the state’s 30 percent. Failure to designate this as at least an intermediate risk would result in discrimination against people of color.”
She said the state should also elevate it because of the threat of hydraulic fracturing and compounding risks to the population.
Myra Blake added that DEQ’s own staff had initially ranked the site as a high risk site and accused the state government of changing the risk level at the request of Duke Energy.
“DEQ is relying on Duke Energy, an admitted criminal, to tell them if there are any problems at the site,” she said. “Their own reports tell you there are serious problems at Belews Creek. The community deserves a clean up, not a cover up.”
18-year-old Mason Via told the DEQ that their decision would have the biggest impact on his generation.
“It is our generation and my grand children that will face the brunt of this disaster,” he said.
Jena Hobert, who lives next to the site said she has lost many dogs to cancer and she and her husband were constantly breaking out in rashes. She said the coal ash had also destroyed the value of her property.
“Our property is tainted now,” she said. “We have no recourse. We are paying a mortgage on a worthless piece of dirt. Any chance of our American Dream has been flushed down the river in an ash spill. If it takes everyone of us standing together to hire legal counsel that is what we will do.”
Appalachian Voices spokeswoman Sara Kellogg said she had heard horror stories form local residents about health issue and deaths.
“People have incredible levels of arsenic in their water,” she said. “If there is any site in the state that deserves to be rated as high priority, it is this site. It has been exposure after exposure and people have really suffered. The only way to deal with this is fully excavating.”
“We are the biggest ash basin in the state,” agreed William Smith who raised three children, one of whom is now suffering kidney failure, in the shadow of the power plant. “We do not need to be the last on the list to be dealt with properly.”
Many speakers asked why the state had recently raised concentration allowances for vanadium and hexavalent chromium. a move which resulted in the lifting of many do-not-drink orders which had been in place for close to a year.
Kathy Jones, a Wake County environmental lawyer who said she is representing some local residents, pointed out that there are 70 property owners within a half mile of the facility but only 23 wells have been tested. She said the DEQ used to require polluters to prove an area was not high risk.
“How can you say there is low risk without requiring that work to be done?” she asked. “They have not provided the proof.”
“If you want good data on speeding you do not go to the police station and ask how many people had turned themselves in,” agreed Chatham County resident John Wagner. “But that is exactly what you are doing with Duke. You rely on their data instead of doing independent studies. Not only are you taking a bad set of data but you are also ignoring your own scientists.”
Several speakers also begged the DEQ representatives at the hearing to stand up to their political bosses and do what was right for the community.
“Do your job,” said Rev. Gregory Hairston. “Don’t let money rule you.”
David Hairston agreed, begging the DEQ representatives to place themselves in the shoes of those living in Pine Hall.
“If your kids lived there would you consider it low priority?” he asked. “This is human life you have in your hands. We all know there are toxins down there and they take their toll on the human body. Would you classify it as low priority if it was your family?”
“I would like for you to all step up,” agreed Doris Smith who has lived in the Pine Hall community for 72 years. “Don’t let this community go down. We want to stay here, we love this place and Duke Energy is eating us up.”
Some speakers said they did not feel thier comments woudl have any impact on the final classification of the facility.
“This is all goiing to amount to nothing,” said Lenord Hicks. “The governor is looking adter Duke Power.”
People have until April 18 to submit comments on the Belews Creek ash pond by mail or online. Written comments may be mailed to: N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, Attn: Toby Vinson, 1612 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C., 27699-1612. Public comments may also be submitted by sending an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.