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Environmental leaders detail coal ash concerns 

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Three local environmental leaders explained the coal ash threats and avenues toward safe storage during an April 28 forum hosted by the Cape Fear Group of the Sierra Club.

Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper, discussed why stricter regulations are needed.

Coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, contains heavy metals and toxins like arsenic, mercury and selenium. At plant sites across North Carolina, the ash is mixed with water and stored in earthen beds unlined or lined with clay.

“Even though coal ash is laden with a long list of heavy metals and carcinogens, it remains unregulated by federal and state governments,” Burdette said.

In addition to spills and illegal pumping at Duke Energy plants in 2014, Burdette said unequivocally all coal ash ponds leak, including the three located at the Sutton Plant near Wilmington.

Earthen walls are the only barrier between coal ash ponds and waterways on which the plants are situated. The wastewater oozes through earthen walls into nearby bodies of water and groundwater sources.

“There are about 745 million gallons of coal ash left after decades of burning coal at Sutton and right next to those coal ash ponds sits Sutton Lake, a very popular fishing destination,” Burdette said.

He mentioned an October 2013 study by a Wake Forest University researcher who observed spinal deformities from selenium in Sutton Lake fish.

The coal ash ponds also pose a problem to the 400 residents of Flemington who currently get drinking water from two groundwater wells within one-half mile of the ponds.

Mary Maclean Asbill, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, outlined the political backdrop for coal ash concerns.

Although scant state and federal regulation for coal ash storage exists, Asbill noted a legal consent order will force the Environmental Protection Agency to classify ash as either hazardous or solid waste by December 2014.

“Even if these rules are promulgated in December 2014, it could be years before they go into effect and start to have an impact. …Our state has got to take charge of [the issue],” Asbill said.

Since coal-burning plants are located beside major rivers to draw water in for cooling, she said the best option for ash storage is in dry, lined landfills away from water sources.

A handful of bills will be considered during the General Assembly’s short session in May.

Asbill said a good bill will address closing all ponds in the state and storing the ash in landfills by a finite time and assuring Duke and its shareholders assume the cost instead of the ratepayers.

Zachary Keith, North Carolina Sierra Club chapter organizer, explained the role of the community in effecting change.

“It’s all about the community coming together and pushing for grassroots action,” Keith said. “We have the momentum on our side.”

He encouraged citizens to write letters to city council members and county commissioners in support of a resolution requested of city council to clean up the coal ash ponds.

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