Saturday, May 10, 2014

First Fracking, Now Coal Ash

This is a cornfield on the Deep River, which joins the Haw River to become the Cape Fear River, and then flows to the coast.  Richard Hayes photographed it. He and I and many others are trying to keep fracking out of North Carolina, and especially out of Lee County.


Coal Ash Dumping in the Cape Fear River by Duke Energy

I had a most enlightening experience last night at Moncure School. I had learned that morning from Pete at NC-WARN [North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network] that our state-wide electric company was going to present a program on coal ash at the local elementary school.

I had returned home from the Malice Domestic mystery convention in Bethesda on the Wednesday, and I had a long list of urgent things to get done Thursday: unload the rest of John’s firewood, sent home with me in my pickup; weed; get to town for my weekly errands, and to the farmers’ market to buy some tomato and pepper plants.  

I debated going to the coal ash program, but Moncure School is only two miles away, and I’ve been worried about Duke Energy being caught illegally pumping 61 million gallons of coal ash waste water in the nearby Cape Fear River, where my drinking water comes from.  The intake for Sanford’s water, which we here in Southeast Chatham and Moncure receive, is not far below where this very toxic substance coal ash wastewater was pumped into the Cape Fear River.  Coal ash contains arsenic, antimony, and boron–all dangerous to human health.

I misread the email messages I received and thought it began at 7:30, but actually this program took place in the Moncure School gym 4:30-7:30.  I got to the school at 7:20, asked the security guard in the parking lot where the coal ash program was, and he pointed me to the main entrance.  He said his job was to protect the cars.  In the entrance hall a woman told me the program was over, and they were packing up.  I did believe it was at 7:30, so that made me angry.  I went into where the blue-shirted Duke Energy employees were packing up, and said, “I want to talk to someone.  I’m upset about the coal ash dumping.”

They heard me and gathered around.  Someone brought me a chair, and the others–ten or so– pulled up chairs.  I was told each one had a different expertise.  Pete had sent me a list of questions, and I had a few of my own, so I started in.  “Will you assure us that the Duke shareholders will pay for cleaning up the coal ash problem and your customers won’t be paying for it?”

“We don’t know yet who will pay for it.”

“Will you assure us that coal ash won’t be dumped on another low-income community like Moncure?”

The answer was that they were studying the problem plant by plant, and would probably solve it by drying out the coal ash.

I said, “Coal ash is always toxic, but I understand that it can be used in bricks, and that our brick companies–two or three in Moncure–import coal ash from outside North Carolina. Couldn’t you supply the brick companies?”

They said that they did send some for making bricks and cinder blocks, but some couldn’t be used that way.

“How many meetings like this are you planning across the state?”

They said, “Five, near the plants, but there are fourteen coal-burning plants.”

I asked if they would be working with citizens.  I had already fussed about the word not getting out well.  “You have our addresses. You send us the calendar with what to do in a nuclear disaster every year, so you can communicate with us besides in your little pamphlet about how wonderful you are.  Why didn’t you?”

No answer.  They said that they publicized it in the newspapers, but they didn’t comment on how they could have reached all the folks in Moncure.  We have an organization of concerned citizens, the Southeast Chatham Citizens Advisory Council, which has both an email list, and a phone tree list, and it would have been easy to get the word out widely.  They’ve attended that meeting in years past so they certainly know about it.

I checked today, and neither last week’s nor yesterday’s paper had any articles about it, but then Diana told me it was an ad, and I found the ad in the May 1 issue of the Chatham News/Record in the sports section, which I never read.  The ad read:  “At the event, you will have an opportunity to hear more about: operations at the retired Cape Fear Plant; our coal ash management plan; how we have modernized the ways we provide you with efficient, reliable power; our work to bring jobs and businesses to the region, as well as support important community causes.  We hope to see you there.  To find out more about our ash management plan, visit” 

My postmaster had talked to one of the employees who was going to set up a booth for this program, and he said he didn’t think it was for the public.  So it was booths?  Not questions and answers?  The staff people I talked to tried to reassure me, but to do that, they lied.  I was not reassured–quite the opposite.

The Dept of Environment and Natural Resources [DENR] fined them for this illegal act, but it took the organization of Riverkeepers to call them on what they were doing.  The Independent of Feb. 26, 2014, had an in-depth article on the ongoing relationship between Duke and DENR, and how both had tried to keep the Riverkeepers out of it when they found violations, and this was going on before an even worse spill on the Dan River.  When the Riverkeepers showed up a few weeks ago on the Cape Fear River, having already photographed them pumping from the coal ash ponds into the stream that feeds into the river, and approached the Duke coal ash ponds, Duke called the Sheriff on them.  Later, the Sheriff admitted that he had no jurisdiction on the water.  The Riverkeepers were in a boat.  

These Duke staff people told me that they didn’t put coal ash in the river.  They were only doing regular maintenance work. 

Furthermore, they claimed the intake for Sanford water was above where the coal ash went in.  My Haw Riverkeeper, Elaine [], says you can see the intake on a google earth photo and that it is located down river from the Cape Fear coal-burning plant (now closed) and the five coal ash ponds, located above the river banks.  So they were caught and fined, but now they say it never happened?

I said, “Your new CEO says you’re going green.  If you’re serious about that, you’ll be doing more wind and solar.  I read in The Washington Post last weekend that this is the way smart businesses are going because of climate change.  N.C. has enough potential wind power to power the whole East Coast.”

I was told some people object to windmills killing birds.  I said, “Better than killing people.” 

Then they said it was too expensive.  I said, “The nuclear plants generate so much terrible waste–that’s expensive, too, and we have to live with it for thousands of years.”

I also mentioned the Florida power plant that years ago gave everyone solar hot water and then took the extra electricity and put it on their grid.  They said if a homeowner put in solar power, they did that, too, and credited his bill.  No plan for Duke to take the lead.  In fact, I understand they were trying to undermine the new “solarize Durham” plan to put solar on all the rooftops at a minimum cost to the homeowners, though I didn’t mention that at the time.

Then I emphasized that I want clean drinking water.  “I want you to care about the people who live in our state and near the plants.”

I also told them they were only doing a PR exercise, and I already knew they weren’t reliable, and often worked hand in glove with the regulators.  I indicated that they hadn’t satisfied me.  Did they believe they could simply lie, and I’d believe them?

Then Marty Clayton, who used to be Progress Energy’s community representative here in Moncure, with whom I fought back in the early 2000s about the unsafe storage of nuclear waste, followed me out, and tried to sweet talk me–I was still so angry.  “How are you?” he asked twice.  Like he cared?  “Fine.”  I got away from him as fast as I could.  The other staff were pulling out of the parking lot, and the security guard, who’d been guarding their cars, was gone.

It was a fluke that I engaged them at all.  What happens to the souls of these mostly young people when they lie like that to an old angry woman worried about her drinking water?  Do they reason they have to follow the company policies and lie or lose their jobs?  Does it disturb their sleep?  Do they even know what really happened? Do they laugh about my rage?  One man looked like he wanted to.  

If they hadn’t violated citizen trust by pumping out that coal ash wastewater, would they have felt the need to have a program in Moncure, which over the years has fought off a landfill three times, a low-level nuclear dump, which took us ten years, terrible air pollution, which the DENR ignored for ten years until citizens went to their county commissioners and fussed, and then the commissioners fussed at the Division of Air Quality, but it still took years for that formaldehyde-polluting plant (Sierra Pine) to be sold and the buyer to put in new equipment to make particle board without giving us air to breathe that made us sick.  

We are tough here.  We know the companies lie to us, and that the regulators need a lot of public pressure to regulate properly.  Right now in this country I begin to believe that only people can take care of people.  At this point in U.S. history, our corporations and corporate money are trying to buy everything, including the courts. We have to refuse it.  Otherwise poor people will become an endangered species.  Actually the threat doesn’t stop at income level.  If the drinking water or the air we breathe is poisoned, we all die sooner or later.  Being rich won’t help anyone then.

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