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Is coal ash poisoning Charlotte-area drinking water?

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If you're like most people, you turn on lights and your collection of electronics without giving much thought to where electricity comes from or how it's created. And, until December 2008, when an earthen dam burst in Tennessee spewing more than one billion gallons of coal ash sludge into a river and across 300 acres of land, not many people thought about the waste generated by energy production either. "It was completely under the radar," says David Merryman, our Catawba Riverkeeper.

Coal ash, most simply, is what remains after coal is burned to generate electricity; like burning wood in a fireplace, there's a little something left over after coal is incinerated. But because there are many sources of coal, and because each coal plant has different technologies in place to manage the waste, it's difficult to say definitively what any given pile of coal ash contains. In general, it's understood that coal ash is a mix of a variety of heavy metals, including, but not limited to, arsenic, mercury, lead, chromium , barium, selenium and cadmium — all of which are recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as hazardous heavy metals individually. "The thing about coal ash," says Donna Lisenby, an activist with the Waterkeeper Alliance and Appalachian Voices, "is it's a toxic soup of all of them."

There is no doubt regulating coal ash is one of the major issues facing our nation today, but it's also a massive issue for Charlotte — and not only because Duke Energy, which is headquartered here, will be impacted. In response to the Tennessee coal ash spill, the Environmental Protection Agency identified 49 high-hazard coal ash ponds across the country, a dozen of which are in North Carolina. (Duke Energy owns 10.) Four are near Charlotte, and two of those discharge wastewater just upstream from where Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities withdraws 80 percent of the area's drinking water from Mountain Island Lake.

That's why, with an eye on protecting the nation's fresh water supply, the EPA decided to regulate coal ash waste for the first time in its 40-year history and after only three decades of debating whether or not coal ash is hazardous. The agency's proposed regulation includes two options: One will categorize coal ash as "special" (or "hazardous") waste, require federal oversight and set a timetable for clean-up. The other won't. Under the non-hazardous option, the state is in charge; this bothers Merryman, who says the state had its chance to regulate the heavy metals that flow into our water daily and have proven its unwillingness to do so.

In an effort to decide which option is best, the EPA is hosting a series of seven public hearings across the U.S., one of which will be in Charlotte on Sept. 14.

Not surprisingly, there are strong opinions on both sides of the debate. Erin Culbert, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, says the company is in favor of federal regulation but calls a hazardous waste classification, "complete regulatory overkill. It just isn't hazardous waste." The company claims the ponds don't adversely impact the environment and that, since it currently plans to shut down its Riverbend plant — the one discharging heavy metals into our drinking water — in 2015, "It really doesn't make economic or business sense for us to dredge and line the ponds when we're about to close it."

Meanwhile, environmentalists say that just because the EPA has failed to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste in the past doesn't mean it's not. They also chide coal and waste management lobbyists for turning the conversation into one about money instead of one about what's best for the health of the average person and the environment. They feel this may be their last chance to get coal ash re-classified as hazardous waste; but they're hoping to win the battle, citing the Obama administration's repeated claims that it will put scientific research and public health ahead of corporate balance sheets. That methodology works for Lisenby, who says, "What's most remarkable about coal ash waste is it's yet another example of how corporate fat cat polluters have continued to avoid oversight. It's about time we, the people, stood up."

To keep coal ash out of the air, it's often weighed down with water and pumped into holding ponds. But not all coal ash ends up in the sludgy ponds. Some of the waste can be re-purposed for use in things like concrete and asphalt. The EPA actually encourages such uses since the waste is encapsulated in those products and can't be washed away by rainwater; however, officials at the industries that purchase coal ash as an ingredient claim listing the substance as hazardous waste will stigmatize their businesses. At the same time, energy company officials claim cleaning up coal ash landfills at their plants and elsewhere, and finding new ways to dispose of the waste, will force them to raise rates.

But Jimmy Knowles from the South Eastern Fly Ash Group says the industry has overcome coal ash-related stigma in the past. In the 1970s, he says, the product he wholesales for companies like Duke Energy was known as "fly trash." His customers didn't like the idea of including trash in their products, so orders slipped. But because it costs a third to half the cost of comparable alternatives, they eventually got over it. Incidentally, he also says the same people who didn't like the word "trash" are now balking at the word "hazardous." When asked if the impending regulations have hurt his business, he says, "There's been a downturn in the whole U.S. economy, so it's hard to say." Like Duke Energy, Knowles' company is in favor of federal regulation for coal ash but not if it means reclassifying it as hazardous waste. Although he acknowledges: "It has the potential to become hazardous if it's mismanaged."

Of course, not all coal ash can be re-purposed. Whether it can be or not depends on the waste management technology at each individual plant. Riverbend, the 80-year-old Duke Energy coal plant on Mountain Island Lake, is not one of the plants that produces the type of coal ash that can be re-purposed in concrete or asphalt manufacturing. Instead, the two unlined, high-hazard ponds behind the plant hold the waste until the ponds are too full to accept any more, then they're drained into the lake and excavated. The sludge, which looks a lot like lava, is then piled around the plant's property, or sold as cheap landfill, and seeded with grass.

Most wastewater is subject to treatment before it's released into area waterways for use by the next downstream municipality. But the tainted water pouring out of Riverbend's ponds, at a rate the company estimates to be many millions of gallons per day, isn't treated at all — even though wastewater (like the stuff you flush) and other debris from the plant is also pumped into the ponds. Additionally, data collected by both Duke and Progress Energy indicate the groundwater beneath every unlined coal ash pond in the state is contaminated. But because the collection of such data is deemed voluntary by both state and federal regulators, and because it hasn't been collected for very long (only since December 2008 at Riverbend), there isn't enough data to determine whether or not the contamination is getting better or worse.

Besides mucky ponds soaking in our groundwater and discharging into our lakes, there's another way coal ash can contaminate water. When it's used as cheap landfill beneath buildings, parks, golf courses and any number of other construction projects, it's easier for stormwater to carry coal ash — and everything in it — into area waterways. Because coal ash is currently not regulated at all by the federal government and only minimally by some states, there are no safeguards for such practices.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities and Mecklenburg County test our water for substances like arsenic before it's treated and pumped into homes and businesses. According to their tests, the water's fine; however, no one seems to know where all of the heavy metals go. The likely answer is that they're stuck in the sediment at the bottom of the lake, which is the second smallest on the Catawba River and only 17 feet deep at its deepest. That's because gravity is the treatment for coal ash wastewater. The job of a coal ash pond is to hold the water for a few days while gravity does its work, ideally, pulling the heavy metals to the bottom of the ponds.

Unfortunately, not all of the metals sink. According to Duke Energy's recordkeeping, which is sometimes shared with the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, 1-3 pounds of arsenic are discharged from the ponds behind Riverbend into Mountain Island Lake every day, depending on how much electricity the plant is producing to meet our demands. Currently, the state does not limit the amount of arsenic the company is allowed to discharge into the lake and calls that type of monitoring "voluntary," too. But that could change. The plant's discharge permit expired in February and the new five-year permit is currently under review.

Both Duke Energy and Mecklenburg County conduct periodic sediment sample tests and claim the sediment's fine as well — or at least the amounts of heavy metals they find aren't illegal. This summer, Merryman, our Riverkeeper, also conducted sediment testing in Mountain Island Lake and found it contains arsenic, barium, lead, selenium and mercury. This is of concern because the shallow lake is also used for recreational purposes and fishing. Which means boat motors and feet can stir up the sediment, reintroducing it — and whatever's in it — back into the water.

"The concentrations are low," says Rusty Rozzelle, Mecklenburg County's Water Quality Program Manager, "but the water quality standards for those metals are also low." He says, because the coal ash ponds are a stone's throw from the Mecklenburg County line on the Gaston County side, that his department hasn't always been aware of them and that they only began testing for arsenic in the lake in June 2009, though they've been testing for other metals for 20 years. So far, he says his department hasn't found anything alarming. He also says that if the dams holding the ponds back should bust, "It would be the biggest catastrophe Charlotte's ever seen."

Every indication, however, is that the dams are structurally sound. That's why, though the state continues to list the ponds behind the Riverbend plant as high-hazards, the EPA dropped its rating to "significant hazard potential." That means, should the earthen dams holding the ponds in place fail, people aren't likely to die right away, but the environment, life-line facilities (like our main water treatment plant) and the local economy will be immediately and severely impacted. And that's not counting the potential health-related risks.

Some of the heavy metals contained in coal ash are known carcinogens (and can actually increase the risk of cancer by 2,000 percent) and some can cause learning disabilities, birth defects or respiratory trouble. Problem is, the most deadly types of health-related issues caused by these substances don't develop overnight, says Dr. Avner Vengosh, a Duke University scientist who studied the impact of the coal ash spill in Tennessee. "I'm not expecting to see an immediate impact on people's health," he says, adding it could take years for certain cancers to metastasize.

"People need to realize this is a fight for their health," says Lisa Evans, a former EPA employee who currently works for Earth Justice, an environmental group that uses the tag line, "Because the earth could use a good lawyer." She worries that health concerns are getting buried beneath coal and waste management industry lobbyists' cries about corporate profits.

While the EPA estimates it will cost, nationally, $20.3 billion per year to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste and $8.1 billion to regulate it as a non-hazardous waste, they also estimate the regulation will save $290 billion in health care costs annually. But for Bill Gupton, chair of the Central Piedmont Group of the N.C. Sierra Club, the issue is an ethical one, not a fiscal one. "Is it right to knowingly put pollutants into our soil and water?" he asks.

That's one reason why his organization, along with other environmental groups, is encouraging the public to attend the Sept. 14 hearings in Charlotte. Those in favor of classifying coal ash as hazardous waste are being asked to wear shirts with the letter "C" on them, meant to show support for Subtitle C — the regulation that will lead to a hazardous classification.

Lisenby says environmentalists plan to grab the EPA's and the media's attention at the hearings, too, but that's all she'll tell us about their plans, though she promises a show. "I encourage people to come out and see what will happen," she says, "It will be one of the most colorful hearings in North Carolina history. I don't think people will want to miss it." C

The EPA's Charlotte hearing will be held Sept. 14 at the Holiday Inn near the airport, 2707 Little Rock Road. The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. and is expected to last for at least 12 hours. If you're interested in speaking at the hearing, pre-register by Sept. 9 at www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/industrial/special/fossil/ccr-rule/ccr-form.htm.

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