No surprises at state's coal ash hearing

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David Merryman, our Catawba Riverkeeper, and Katie Hicks, of NC Clean Water.
  • David Merryman, our Catawba Riverkeeper, and Katie Hicks, of NC Clean Water.

Last night's coal ash hearing, held by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR), was well attended, though only 19 people spoke. That's not counting the state employee who introduced the hearing, which was offered so the public could comment on several pollution discharge permits the state reviews and renews every five years.

All in all, the hearing went as expected. In fact, many of the speakers who were at the EPA's hearing last month regarding federal regulations for coal ash also attended the state's hearing. There were a few new faces, though, like the man who lives next to the Marshall coal plant's coal ash ponds and said, "Duke Power is not a good neighbor."

The permits in question all belong to Duke Energy and the company's three coal plants on the Catawba River system near Charlotte: Marshall, Riverbend and Allen. The permits cover thermal pollution (which occurs when the company uses water to cool their plants, then dumps it back into the lakes) and drainage from four unlined coal ash ponds. The polluted water is discharged into Lake Norman from the Marshall plant, Mountain Island Lake from the Riverbend plant and Lake Wylie from the Allen plant.

While the drafts of the permits step up regulations slightly in some cases — for instance, the company will now be fined if groundwater contamination exceeds established standards, it maintains the status quo in other ways — like failing to limit the amount of arsenic that can be discharged into the lakes.

Keep in mind, the lakes were all built by Duke Energy so they could use them to cool its plants (both coal and nuclear) produce a bit of hydro-electric power and dilute their pollution. Still, according to our state's laws, the water belongs to the people — not the government or any company.

As with the EPA's hearing, employees who work for corporations directly impacted by the proposed regulations lobbied for lenient rules and everyone else lobbied for stronger rules. Of the 19 people who spoke, one Duke Energy employee was allowed to speak for 21 minutes (everyone else only got three), three other Duke employees spoke in favor of issuing the permits as is, one man with laryngitis made no sense at all and 15 citizens — including environmentalists, clergy, a representative from Charlotte-Mecklenburg's water quality department, scientists and a guy who says he's a ponzi scheme expert— spoke out in favor of strengthening the permits.

Arsenic and other heavy metals are routinely found in Mountain Island Lake (aka our drinking water) — but, depending on who you ask, it's not a big deal. Of course, this morning The Observer's Bruce Henderson is reporting that Gaston County (they also pump drinking water from Mountain Island Lake) admitted to finding arsenic and mercury in the sludge the county's cleaning out of their drinking water. It's unclear if Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Department tests the sludge they're cleaning from the water they pump from the lake, and no one from their department spoke at last night's hearing ... neither did any elected officials.

Also keep in mind that the heavy metals included in coal ash can cause a variety of health problems ranging from learning disabilities to cancer. Additionally, the other issue being debated: the temperature of the water can lead to fish kills. C.D. Collins testified fish kills are a common occurrence near his home. Here's why: When the water heats up, its oxygen levels drop. Fish try to swim lower to colder, more oxygenated water and, not finding it, die. Collins' description of the fish kills produced the most interesting, and likely appropriate, word of the evening: stinkiest.

Something else debated at the hearing last night: Duke's current right to monitor itself. They're the first to tell you the groundwater wells they installed at Riverbend in December 2008, earlier at other plants, are monitored on a voluntary basis. (Note: The EPA told them to install them in 2000.) Company representatives also talk about how they monitor the fish and the heavy metal levels in the lake and carefully regulate the water's temperature and, as good neighbors, share all of that information with the state. That's nice of them, but as the ponzi scheme expert, Robert Fitzpatrick, pointed out, it's usually not a good idea to allow those with a vested interested in test results to monitor themselves.

NCDENR ended the hearing by promising a ruling on the permits within 90 days, or roughly by mid-January. I guess that's when we'll see if the state has our back, or Duke Energy's. Reminder: This is the same agency whose employees routinely say, "The solution to pollution is dilution."

Rhiannon "Rhi" Bowman is an independent journalist who contributes snarky commentary on Creative Loafing's CLog blog four days a week in addition to writing for several other local media organizations. To learn more, click the links or follow Rhi on Twitter.

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