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What a Real Coal Ash Cleanup Looks Like

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What a Real Coal Ash Cleanup Looks Like
Flooding at Duke Energy's H.F. Lee Energy Complex in Goldsboro, North Carolina on Oct. 10, 2016 after Hurricane Maria. Travis Graves, Lower Neuse Riverkeeper

By Emilie Karrick Surrusco

The toxic mess left behind from burning coal is a growing, nationwide problem. But we're seeing that state governments can be convinced to do the right thing and clean it up. Recently, North Carolina joined its neighboring state to become a trendsetter in the proper disposal of coal ash waste.


Following on the heels of similar news in Virginia, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on April 1 ordered Duke Energy to completely excavate and close all of its coal ash ponds in the state.

This is no less than "momentous news," according to Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, for a state that is the nation's ninth largest producer of coal ash — a toxic byproduct from burning coal. For states across the nation where federal regulations are forcing companies to submit closure and cleanup plans for coal ash contamination, North Carolina's plan provides an example of what safe closure looks like. For states that are formulating their own coal ash rules, like Illinois, the North Carolina plan is a blueprint.

"The state decided that protection of human health and the environment must be placed above the convenience of Duke Energy," Evans said. "It's a great moment when the state government has the courage to make the right decision for the people of North Carolina. This is truly a model for the nation."

Coal ash spilled by Hurricane Florence coats a turtle in North Carolina. (Riverkeepers cleaned and released the turtle.)

PETE HARRISON / EARTHJUSTICE

For decades, utilities have disposed of toxic coal ash dangerously, storing it in unlined pits that allow the coal ash to leak into groundwater and spill into nearby lakes, rivers and streams. The true implications of this improper disposal are only beginning to be understood. After federal coal ash regulations required utilities to publicly report groundwater monitoring data, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project released a report last month that analyzes groundwater monitoring data at 265 power plants across the country for the first time.

The report shows that groundwater near 91 percent of power plants with monitoring data contained unsafe levels of one or more of the pollutants in coal ash — including arsenic, a known carcinogen, and lithium, which is associated with neurological damage, among other pollutants. In many cases, the contamination is significant enough that coal plant operators must submit cleanup plans. In the next six months alone, we are expecting about 100 such plans.

"The modus operandi of this industry from 1900 to today is to dispose of its toxic waste as cheaply as possible. This has had disastrous consequences," said Evans. "The long-term remedy is to stop producing the dangerous waste, but short of that, if you have ash in groundwater, you have to excavate."

This report also listed the nation's most contaminated sites — including Duke Energy's Allen Steam Station in Belmont, North Carolina.

Duke Energy, which has 14 former power plant sites in North Carolina, has consistently tried to cover up the problem of coal ash contamination and dispose of its toxic stew improperly — its actions resulted in a $102 million fine and a guilty plea to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act stemming from activities at multiple North Carolina coal plants.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, along with tenacious activists across the state, have spent the past seven years fighting Duke Energy, resulting in victories that forced the nation's largest utility to clean up its mess at eight plant sites. Now, thanks to the state's order, Duke Energy is required to file a plan by Aug. 1 that explains how it will empty and close its six remaining plant sites in the state, which include 11 coal ash ponds.

"Public meetings were held at the six sites, and local communities came out in force. They were unanimous in demanding that Duke Energy remove the coal ash from unlined pits," said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "Duke has several weeks to decide if they are going to accept this decision, or instead if it's going to continue to litigate and lobby to put off dealing with its coal ash pollution."

While the state's order is a significant victory for the people of North Carolina, it's been a long time coming for activists and community leaders who have watched as beloved lakes and rivers have become increasingly polluted and drinking water wells became undrinkable.

In 2014, North Carolina experienced a grim wake-up call when 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from Duke Energy's Dan River plant — sending 27 million gallons of sludge filled with toxic chemicals into a river that supplies drinking water to surrounding communities. Following that spill, the state legislature passed the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA), which required the DEQ to evaluate coal ash disposal at each of Duke Energy's plant sites.

At the same time, hurricanes and increasingly heavy rains have caused coal ash pits across North Carolina and the southeastern U.S. to overflow. During Hurricane Florence, when 35 inches of rain fell over four days in North Carolina, coal ash from the Duke Energy plant in Goldsboro spilled into the Neuse River, and a coal ash lagoon at the L.V. Sutton Power Station in Wilmington was flooded.

"From climate change-fueled storms to industry spills, a perfect storm of disasters was enough to make a state like North Carolina do the right thing when communities demanded protection," said Evans.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is intent on keeping that from happening at the national level. Turning a blind eye to the mounting evidence of contamination from coal ash dumps and the increasing intensity of storms that cause coal ash spills, the Trump EPA has moved to weaken the 2015 coal ash rule rather than strengthen it. Despite a court order from the DC Circuit Court to expand and strengthen the federal rule, EPA abides by its industry-friendly agenda to gut federal protections.

However, as North Carolina and Virginia have shown, state governments can be convinced to take action where the Trump administration won't.

In Illinois, progress is happening piecemeal, with hopes that the state will soon take comprehensive action. The Coal Ash Cleanup and Storage Act was recently introduced in the state legislature to address the fact that 22 of the state's 24 coal-fired power plants have contaminated groundwater with unsafe levels of one or more toxic pollutants. In addition, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Prairie Rivers Network, recently filed a lawsuit against Dynegy, a local utility that has been allowing toxic waste from its coal-ash pits to leach into groundwater and the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois' only Wild and Scenic River.

"The public wants protection from coal ash and coal ash pollution," said Holleman. "The only place in the country where there is backward movement on this is in the Trump administration and the EPA. I have never encountered a person who wanted less protection from coal ash pollution and this includes in communities that voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump."

Despite EPA's lack of action, communities across the nation are stepping forward to demand that polluters clean up their toxic mess — state governments are starting to listen and pick up where the federal government left off.

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By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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