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Coal ash is a particularly dangerous byproduct of our dependence on fossil fuels. In communities that have dealt with coal ash spills, the incidents sparked concerns about toxins potentially seeping into water. Utilities have been pushed to adopt tougher safety standards -- but activists say the companies are resisting rules necessary for public health. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.
Coal ash is an especially bad and dangerous byproduct of our dependence on coal and fossil fuels. Now over the years, a number of communities have dealt with coal ash spills that have turned into emergencies with real public health concerns over what's seeped into the water. In some places, utilities have been pushed to adopt tougher standards.
But as Miles O'Brien reports, some residents and activists say the power companies are fighting changes that could help protect public health. It's part of our regular segment on the "Leading Edge" of science and technology.
This is the well water?
This is the well water.
This is 2015.
At the kitchen table in her home of 41 years near Charlotte, Laura Tench showed me the official notice that rocked her world in 2015.
The North Carolina Division of Public Health recommends that your well water not be used for drinking and cooking. What's it like when you got a notice like that?
Scary. You don't want to turn on the spigot.
Her well water was more like a witches' brew– among the frightening ingredients: cancer causers, hexavalent chromium, ten times the state safety threshold, and vanadium, almost 30 times the standard.
She and her family had no choice, forced to rely solely on bottled water for nearly three years.
I would not allow my children to take a tub bath. They had to take a quick shower, no luxury.
They didn't have to look far to find the suspected source of the contamination: the 62-year-old Allen Steam Station coal fired power plant. It sits right next to the neighborhood, and right in the middle of a raging national debate over what to do about the toxic remnants left behind after the coal is burned.
What's leftover is ash, and in addition to hexavalent chromium, it contains arsenic, mercury, thallium, selenium, lead and more.
There are 16 million tons of coal ash here at Allen.
Duke Energy spokesperson Erin Culbert gave me a tour.
What are we seeing here? What's all around us?
Well, really as far as the eye can see in all these directions, we're looking at coal ash.
The ash Duke Energy creates today is either used to make concrete and wallboard or kept dry and stored in lined landfills. But for decades, Duke and other utilities mixed the ash with water and sent a steady stream of the toxic mix, into deep unlined pits, with no barrier between the ash and the groundwater.
In all, Duke owns 23 coal fired plants in five states, 14 in North Carolina, where they store about 153 million tons of coal ash, 101 million tons of it sitting in 23 unlined pits.
This was certainly decades before the U.S. EPA was in place and before today's regulations that would require those liners. So, most of the ash basins that we operate were constructed at the time when liners weren't required.
Each year, U.S. utilities generate 100 million tons of coal ash, one of the largest industrial waste streams in the country.
It took me a long time to get over the anger of it that Duke knew this and they didn't do anything they were supposed to. They were supposed to be responsible.
Given the unknowns about cancer and the latency between exposure and symptoms, it is all but impossible to conclusively connect the toxins to a particular illness in one individual. But Laura Tench is surrounded by cancer. She lost her husband Jack to the disease last year, and many of her neighbors have similar stories.
They call the street in front of me, "cancer street". John died first and he is gone. My husband died from cancer. Mary Ann (ph) next door died from cancer.
You can't tell me that these people, just because they're past 50, it's normal for them get cancer and die. And there's too many people, they're dying on my little street. They're killing us.
Duke Energy responded with the highest level of caution. We offered to provide bottled water for those folks while we were continuing to do more testing.
Coal ash and its consequences burst into public consciousness in 2008, when an earthen dam at a power plant in Kingston, Tennessee, collapsed, sending more than a billion gallons of ash-tainted water into a river.
This caught Attorney Frank Holleman's attention.
We're using 21st century technology to take pollutants out of the smoke stack, and then we're using 14th century technology to dispose of the ash and the pollutants we pull out of the smoke stack. It's the most dangerous, and the most primitive way you could store this toxic industrial waste.
So, Holleman, the Southern Environmental Law Center and local activists began a decade long battle to end the reckless dumping. They started suing utilities to compel them to store the coal ash in a safer manner.
It was a David versus Goliath struggle. Duke Energy, which towers over the Charlotte skyline, is one of the largest electric utilities in the U.S., a monopoly with more than $24 billion in revenue.
And yet the plaintiffs won, again and again, repeatedly forcing utilities to dispose of coal ash in dry, lined landfills in Virginia and South Carolina, as well as North Carolina.
Ultimately, the Duke Energy operating companies in the state pleaded guilty 18 times to Clean Water Act crimes and remained on criminal probation today.
In North Carolina, the tide turned fully against unlined coal ash pits in 2014. That's when a broken pipe at a duke energy power plant caused a huge coal ash spill into the Dan River. It prompted the first state law regulating coal ash storage later that year. Virginia and Illinois followed, and so did the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the Trump EPA has loosened the rules and extended the deadlines.
Then in September 2018, high water generated by Hurricane Florence caused a coal ash spill at Sutton Lake near Wilmington, North Carolina. In April, state regulators upped the ante, telling Duke that all the remaining unlined basins must be excavated and moved to dry landfills.
The state has asked you to do it?
And you're appealing?
We respectfully disagree with their position. We believe that a one-size-fits-all is the wrong approach.
Duke agreed to excavate 22 unlined pits and move the ash to dry, lined landfills. But the company is refusing to do the same at nine others, including here at Allen. Instead, the company wants to drain the water and cover the ash with soil and a liner, capped in place.
Some of the common denominators around the sites that we propose capping would involve sites that are not at risk of flooding from the adjacent water body. In all of these circumstances, the water flow is going away from neighbors and would not have the future opportunity to impact their drinking water wells.
On our tour of Allen, Culbert showed how the company reached that conclusion. To be sure, the coal ash is not migrating, there are 200 ground water monitoring sites around the plant, and routine testing on the river.
But tracing toxins from coal ash is a complex task, as many of them, including hexavalent chromium, occur naturally.
At Duke University, geochemist and coal ash expert Avner Vengosh has developed a test that measures not one chemical, but an array of them, in samples to identify if it comes from coal ash or not. The whole mixture is akin to a chemical fingerprint.
It's not black and white. We do see evidence for contamination in shallow groundwater, but we have not seen the arrival of those of contaminants into drinking water wells. It could come anytime. It still may be happening in some places,
Despite the ambiguity, Vengosh says coal ash needs to be treated as hazardous waste.
We should treat it in the way we actually manage hazardous waste in this country. We put it in a system that is isolated and there are technical solutions to do so. It's only a matter of, first, awareness and then economics.
The multi layered liners and the excavation of the coal ash are expensive. At the Allen site, Duke Energy estimates it would take in excess of half a billion dollars and two decades to do the job. Capping in place is a lot cheaper and faster, $185 million, and less than nine years.
If we have to excavate all of these ash basins, that takes a lot of money, billions of dollars away from cleaner investments in renewables and other types of technologies.
We know the solution. It's a shame that people were ever exposed to these risks but it's a shame if we don't stop these risks as soon as we reasonably can.
Laura Tench and her neighbors are now attached to the municipal water supply. But that does not change their view of Duke Energy's responsibility.
At this point, you want Duke to do the right thing. What is the right thing?
They have to have these things lined. We have been told to take care of the environment and we're not doing it. Everyone is responsible not only Duke but we're responsible to make sure that it's being taken care of. We need to stop using coal. It's the bottom line.
She is practicing what she preaches — installing solar panels on her roof not long after our visit. She looks forward to using clean power, and sending less money to Duke.
For the "PBS NewsHour", I'm Miles O'Brien in Belmont, North Carolina.
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Miles O’Brien is a veteran, independent journalist who focuses on science, technology and aerospace.
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