By Catherine Clabby
To better shield poor people and racial minorities from excessive impacts from Duke Energy’s statewide coal ash clean up, North Carolina will require “environmental justice” reviews of any landfills the state permits.
The reviews, to be evaluated by outside environmental-justice experts, will explore adverse socioeconomic, environmental and health risks from the facilities on these groups.
“This is to hold Duke to account for coal ash cleanup; it’s another step in that process, said Mike Rusher, Department of Environmental Quality communications director.
Duke Energy pleaded guilty a year ago in May to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act at multiple energy-generating and coal ash-waste storage sites after a drainage pipe ruptured in 2014, spilling tons of coal ash from a steam station property into the Dan River near Eden.
The state is requiring that the utility clean up more than 100 million tons of ash waste at 14 facilities, with four sites posing the greatest environmental risk on the shortest timeline. The scope of the new reviews, Rusher said, is still under development but it will exceed existing state and federal environmental or health requirements.
State regulators will also ask the EPA Office of Civil Rights and the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights and its North Carolina Advisory Committee to review and approve each analysis before a state permit is issued.
The administration of Gov. Pat McCrory is introducing this step as concern is rising that people who are poor and non-white shoulder unfair burdens from utility facilities due to living nearby.
Last week, the North Carolina Advisory Committee of the Civil Rights commission solicited testimony about risks from coal ash waste to minority communities at a meeting in Walnut Cove in Stokes County. The commission is researching this topic in multiple states and will submit what it finds, along with recommended policy responses, to Congress and the president.
State Department of Environmental Quality Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder first mentioned DEQ’s plans for the environmental-justice review publicly at that meeting.
Coal ash, waste from coal burned at power plants, contains chemicals that can be harmful to people, including mercury, cadmium, arsenic and more. If not contained, these contaminants can pollute waterways, leach into ground water and drinking water, and coal ash dust can get into the air, increasing the chances people will be exposed.
Chandra Taylor, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said racial minorities and people with low incomes do, in fact, live closest to some coal ash waste sites in this state.
“The most clear example would be at the Belews Creek Steam Station,” she said, where a larger proportion of black and other minority people live near the facility than live in the rest of Stokes County and the state as a whole.
The country’s largest power company is hauling ash by train from two of its coal ash waste sites, the Sutton Plant in Wilmington and the Riverbend Plant in Mount Holly, and into a lined landfill in Chatham County. But where ash excavation is required, it hopes to build state-permitted landfills on existing properties where room and state approval allow, meaning people would continue to live near coal ash waste sites. Duke has applied for, not yet obtained, permits to build landfills at the Dan River site and in Wilmington.
“We hope this added level of review provides an avenue for important dialogue, while allowing us to proceed with proven closure solutions,” said Duke Energy spokesman Erin Culbert.
Taylor, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, said she would be more pleased with the additional reviews if the same scrutiny would be given to all existing coal ash waste sites.
Clarification: This story has been changed to add a second site where Duke Energy has applied for permits to build coal ash landfill, and to reflect a second site where the company is hauling coal ash away from an existing pond.