A new report written by Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club, revealed widespread pollution of the groundwater surrounding 90 percent of reporting Illinois coal ash dumpsites.
The report is based on industry data made publicly available for the first time this year because of a requirement in federal coal ash regulations. It concludes that 22 of Illinois 24 coal ash dumpsites with available data have released toxic pollutants including arsenic, cobalt and lithium, into groundwater.
Millions of tons of coal ash, generated by the State's coal-fired power plants, has been stored in primarily unlined ponds and landfills near the plants for decades. This toxic byproduct of burning coal continues to flow into groundwater, rivers, and lakes all over the State, including the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois' only National Scenic River. Illinois started the process of regulating coal ash in 2013, but those plans were abandoned, and multiple administrations have allowed the coal ash ponds to operate for years with little or no state or federal oversight.
In 2015, federal coal ash regulations required utilities to start collecting groundwater data near coal ash dumps. In March of 2018, this data became public for the first time. The report analyzes the groundwater monitoring data reported by utilities.
Coal ash contains a hazardous brew of toxic pollutants including arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, radium, selenium and more. The toxics in coal ash can cause cancer, heart disease, reproductive failure and stroke, and can inflict lasting brain damage on children.
This pollution is not limited to groundwater contamination. According to the most recent Clean Water Act permit applications on file with Illinois EPA, Illinois coal plants dump millions of pounds of pollution into lakes, rivers and streams each year. These pollutants include over 300,000 pounds of aluminum, 600 pounds of arsenic, nearly 300,000 pounds of boron, over 200 pounds of cadmium, over 15,000 pounds of manganese, roughly 1,500 pounds of selenium, roughly 500,000 pounds of nitrogen, and nearly 40 million pounds of sulfate.
Local groups from all over the state are calling for action from State officials to put protections in place to stop the pollution from coal ash permanently, prevent further dumping or storage of coal ash in the state, and hold polluters accountable for the toxic messes they have created.
Andrew Rehn, a water resources engineer from Prairie Rivers Network, an advocacy group fighting for healthy rivers and clean water in Illinois said, "Illinois needs to act now to strengthen rules that protect the public from coal ash. We're reaching a turning point as Energy companies are proposing to leave coal ash in floodplains of rivers and exposed to groundwater. We need stronger rules that provide permanent protection with a financial guarantee, and give the public a voice in these decisions"
"Because utilities were forced to report groundwater monitoring data in the 2015 coal ash rule, we now know the scope and severity of groundwater contamination from coal ash in Illinois," said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Cassel. "Now that communities can see the evidence of toxic pollution leaking into their precious groundwater resources from these ponds for themselves, they can hold utilities and the State accountable."
"The contamination from coal ash is going to get worse, and will be a part of the Illinois environment for generations unless the state takes a few simple steps," said Abel Russ, senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. "We now have a baseline – almost all of the coal plants are polluted. Let's hope that we can come back in ten years and see that most of these sites are clean."
"Illinois cannot afford to stand by while companies dump toxic waste that will threaten our state's valuable water resources indefinitely. There is a moral obligation to ensure that companies clean up the mess they create and lift that burden from impacted communities. Coal ash creates one more barrier to economic development while cleaning it up can create jobs and open the door to future development." Joe Laszlo, Sierra Club Member and Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance Chairperson
The report, Cap and Run: Toxic Coal Ash Left Behind by Big Polluters Threatens Illinois Water, features data released by power companies on their websites earlier this year in response to requirements in a 2015 EPA regulation known as the "coal ash rule." Some of the local examples highlighted in the report include:
- At NRG-subsidiary Midwest Generation's Waukegan Plant, on the shore of Lake Michigan, boron–which can cause developmental problems in children and is toxic to aquatic life – exceeds the Illinois groundwater standard by up to 16 times.
- At Dynegy's retired Vermilion coal plant on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River–Illinois' only National Scenic River–upstream of the City of Danville, ash-polluted groundwater is visibly seeping through the riverbank into the river and groundwater testing revealed boron at levels more than thirteen times EPA's health threshold.
- At the Lincoln Stone Quarry on the banks of the Des Plaines River in Joliet–into which Midwest Generation dumped coal ash from its now-gas-fueled Joliet coal plants for decades–arsenic exceeds safe levels in groundwater monitoring wells by over twenty-three times and boron is seven times higher than EPA health thresholds.
- At Vistra subsidiary Dynegy's Hennepin coal plant, in the floodplain of the Illinois River downstream of Starved Rock State Park, arsenic and boron are more than three times higher than safe levels, and lithium reaches levels up to twelve times higher than what is safe.
- At Dynegy's E.D. Edwards coal plant, located on the Illinois River just south of Peoria, lead concentrations are eighteen times US EPA's drinking water standard.
Environmental Negligence vs. Civil Rights: Black and Hispanic Communities Get More Pollution, Fewer Jobs
But a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday found that, for "communities of racial/ethnic minorities," welcoming polluting industries for the sake of employment is a tradeoff that doesn't make any sense. Blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. are both less frequently employed at industrial facilities and more likely to be exposed to toxic air pollution from these sites.
"The share of pollution risk accruing to minority groups generally exceeds their share of employment and greatly exceeds their share of higher paying jobs. In aggregate, we find no evidence that facilities that create higher pollution risk for surrounding communities provide more jobs," the study concluded.
By the numbers, black Americans hold 10.8 percent of the jobs at industrial facilities, but suffer 17.4 percent of the exposure to air pollution. Hispanics hold 9.8 percent of the jobs, but suffer 15 percent of the pollution exposure. Both populations have less than seven percent of the high-paying jobs offered at industrial sites, U.S. News & World Report reported.
The fossil fuel industry was the worst offender. At petroleum industry and coal-product facilities, blacks and Hispanics suffered 48 percent of the pollution exposure and only received around a fifth of the jobs.
Monday's study comes a little more than six months after a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study found that race and not poverty was the greatest predictor of exposure to certain air pollutants from the oil industry. Despite such findings, the EPA has severely reduced the size of its Office of Environmental Justice under the Trump administration.
Monday's study was also published the same day as an in-depth report by Stateline for the Huffington Post looking at the individual consequences of this kind of environmental racism.
The report focused on the town of Uniontown, Alabama, where its 2,300 low-income, majority black residents are exposed to a landfill that accepts coal ash, a cheese factory that emits a noxious smell and dumps waste into a local creek and wastewater from a catfish processing factory that contributes to an overburdened sewer system that leaks fecal matter into streams and rivers.
"Look at every black community or poor community," resident Esther Calhoun who has been involved with several lawsuits against the offending polluters told Stateline. "The EPA is supposed to be the Environmental Protection Agency, but they're protecting the rich. What do they do for us? Nothing."
The report said that black residents in Union Hill, Virginia; North Birmingham, Alabama; Braddock, Pennsylvania; Burke County and Jessup, Georgia and Waukegan, Illinois had similarly complained that their communities had been chosen as the location for polluting industries and that regulatory agencies had sided with industry when the communities challenged their placement.
The EPA, for example, denied Uniontown's environmental racism complaint earlier this year.
Pollution, Race and the Search for Justice https://t.co/OMWQS2NkNg @greenpeaceusa @foodandwater @ClimateReality @YEARSofLIVING— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1520265171.0
- 'Clean Energy Is a Fundamental Civil Right': Major Campaign to ... ›
- 'Another Blow to the Black Community': Trump Waives Environmental Law That Gives Public a Voice in Infrastructure Projects - EcoWatch ›
- Fighting Climate Change Is a Social Justice Issue Too - EcoWatch ›
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
As people in North and South Carolina continue to confront flooding and other massive damage from Hurricane Florence, it's heartbreaking to watch them have to deal with yet another hazard: the toxic coal ash leaked from coal ash ponds and landfills in the region. Even more infuriating is the denial coming from the company responsible for that pollution in the first place—Duke Energy in North Carolina.
On Sept. 19, Duke Energy activated a high-level emergency alert at the retired L.V. Sutton coal-fired power plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, as Hurricane Florence–related flood waters from the nearby Cape Fear River overtook an earthen dike and Sutton Lake. That same day, the Neuse River flooded all three of Duke's coal ash ponds at the retired H.F. Lee coal plant in Goldsboro.
On Sept. 21, Duke reported that dams at both the north and south end of Sutton Lake had been breached by floodwaters from Florence. In addition, floodwaters have overtopped a retaining wall between the lake and one of the unlined coal ash dumps at the site. Coal ash was observed in the lake, and Duke acknowledged it's possible that coal ash is flowing into the Cape Fear River.
Our friends at the Waterkeeper Alliance took photos and videos of coal ash in several waterways. Yet, in the wake of Hurricane Florence, Duke Energy has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of its ash ponds, hiding behind the fact that coal ash which contains toxins including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, aluminum and chloride—is not designated as a hazardous waste.
Jo-Anne McArthur / Waterkeeper Alliance / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan claimed in a recent statement that, "It is a very common misconception that ash is toxic, but routine toxicity tests on our basin water continue to demonstrate it's not."
You have got to be kidding me. It's jaw dropping and infuriating to me that utility executives are still claiming coal ash is harmless after all the disasters of recent years—from massive coal ash spills, to the health problems plaguing workers who cleaned them up, to the hundreds of other communities home to coal ash sites where families living with polluted air and water are paying the ultimate price for this tired old lie. The public health hazards and environmental threats to nearby communities from unsafe coal ash dumping have been known for many years, including increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma and other illnesses.
The Sierra Club and our allies have worked for years to force cleanup of these sites, both by pushing for stronger federal and state safeguards, and through litigation and organizing at the local level. Represented by our friends at the Southern Environmental Law Center, we even secured a Clean Water Act settlement that required Duke to move its ash from unlined pits at the Sutton plant to a lined landfill. Unfortunately, that work wasn't completed fast enough to prevent some of the damage—and even the lined landfill was also breached by the hurricane, underscoring that while some methods of storing coal ash are better than others, the only true solution is to generate power with clean energy and stop creating coal ash altogether.
Carolina residents have long warned Duke Energy, state officials, and the public about these coal ash landfills being a disaster waiting to happen—and many of the ash sites had already leaked several times long before Florence came ashore. The coal ash sites are frequently near low-income communities and communities of color, as CityLab's Brentin Mock documents in these two powerful articles about Hurricane Florence and the long-time environmental justice fights in the Carolinas.
There is no completely safe way to store toxic coal waste, or to mine and burn coal, that doesn't threaten communities, our waterways, and our climate. Knowing all the problems that coal ash causes, Duke needs to stop burning coal and retire all of its coal plants soon. Duke Energy should also take greater advantage of the abundant and affordable clean, renewable energy sources and phase out its use of unnecessary fracked gas plants. And the EPA should strengthen our federal coal ash safeguards, rather than gutting them as the Trump administration is now doing.
Hurricane Florence should be Duke Energy's wakeup call to remove its ash from all of its unlined, leaking coal ash pits next to waterways and take the necessary steps to ensure that all of its landfills are secure as possible and won't contaminate communities—not only when there are massive storms but also from everyday leaching into our groundwater.
Coal ash contains toxic metals like arsenic, lead and mercury and is often left in ponds where it has been known to contaminate groundwater.
The rule change gives states greater authority over regulating one of the nation's biggest sources of industrial waste and allows companies to forgo annual groundwater tests if they can prove their coal ash is not polluting nearby aquifers.
"These rules will allow yet more tons of coal ash, containing toxics like arsenic and mercury, to be dumped into unlined leaking pits sitting in groundwater and next to rivers, lakes and drinking water reservoirs," Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Frank Holleman told CNN.
The new rule was signed July 18 and was the first rule signed by new acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler, Reuters reported.
"Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs," Wheeler said, according to Reuters.
Revisions to the Obama-era coal ash regulations put in place in 2015 were sought by coal CEO Bob Murray, who Wheeler used to lobby for.
In March 2017, Wheeler helped organize and was present at a meeting between Murray and Energy Sec. Rick Perry in which Murray presented a plan to "assist in the survival of our Country's coal industry" which included giving states more control over coal ash disposal, CNN reported.
"It is now apparently the goal of EPA to save industry money by allowing them to continue to dump toxic waste into leaking pits, which is exactly what the new rule accomplishes," Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans told CNN.
The obama-era coal ash regulations were written following two coal ash spills.
In 2008, a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant broke and released a billion gallons of coal ash into the Clinch River, covering 300 acres with sludge and contaminating fish with arsenic and selenium for months afterword.
In 2014, a pipe at Duke Energy's Dan River steam station leaked 39,000 tons of coal ash into North Carolina waterways, extending 70 miles and leading to mercury levels in fish so high that authorities still recommend against eating them.
But even in the absence of a single disaster, coal ash can have devastating effects on human health.
Tracey Brown Edwards, who grew up next to Duke Energy's Belews Creek Steam Station in Walnut Cove, North Carolina which had a coal ash pond next to a neighborhood lake, told CNN that in the five homes on her block, four had experienced cancer in the family.
"There's been a lot of young people with cancer, certain kinds of cancers, brain cancer, stomach cancers, breast cancer," she said.
Doctors say they cannot confirm if the cancer is caused by coal ash, but they also cannot exclude it as a possibility, CNN reported.
The move displaces the federal government as the body responsible for coal ash disposal in EPA head Scott Pruitt's home state. Coal ash is the residue left over from burning coal for power that often contaminates groundwater. It is a change that industry has lobbied for and environmental groups have opposed.
States have demonstrated that "they don't care about the health and safety of communities near coal ash dumps," Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans told The Associated Press.
About 100 million tons of coal ash is produced by U.S. plants every year, often left in disposal ponds that leak into groundwater, contaminating it with pollutants like arsenic and radium. Tests ordered by the EPA this spring of groundwater around plants in various states found elevated pollution levels, according to The Associated Press.
Despite this, "industry has asked for leniency, less stringency. That's the direction they're going," Evans said.
According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, switching coal ash oversight to states was part of an "action plan" proposed by coal industry executive Robert Murray this spring to Pruitt and other officials in the Trump administration.
Pruitt defended the decision, saying in a statement that the move empowered "those who are best positioned to oversee coal ash management—the officials who have intimate knowledge of the facilities and the environment in their state."
Pruitt also moved to weaken Obama-era coal ash disposal regulations in March, but the rule change allowing states to control coal ash disposal was actually passed by Congress and signed by former President Barack Obama in 2016, according to NPR. The law said that state rules had to be "as protective as" federal guidelines.
"I am pleased that Oklahoma is the first state in the nation to receive approval of its Coal Combustion Residuals permit program. We actually incorporated the federal rule into our state permitting rules program over a year ago," Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Executive Director Scott Thompson said in an EPA press release about the decision.
But at a hearing in February, Oklahoma environmental groups said the DEQ was not prepared to adequately regulate coal ash.
"The DEQ rules are weaker than the EPA rules," Oklahoma Grand Riverkeeper and activist Earl Hatley told NPR in February. "This is just a boon for industry to do what they want."
Waterkeeper Alliance senior attorney Kelly Foster further expressed concerns that the DEQ plan did not provide enough information on how companies would be made to comply with regulations and how the DEQ would take on new responsibilities with existing resources.
Georgia and Texas are following Oklahoma in taking steps to control coal ash disposal, The Associated Press reported.
EPA Moves to Overhaul Obama-Era Coal Ash Disposal Rule https://t.co/FnWY1fuRMj @wwwfoecouk @GreenpeaceUK— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1520071507.0
The Associated Press reports that this is the first time the $59 billion electricity company has sought permission to have North Carolina consumers pay part of its costs of disposing the waste, a toxic byproduct of burning coal for power.
Duke Energy Progress, a Duke subsidiary that serves parts of North Carolina, filed for a rate increase with the North Carolina Utilities Commission on June 1. If approved, its 1.3 million customers would see their electricity bills increase about 15 percent.
The rate hike would generate an extra $477 million in annual revenue for the company. Duke said the money would be used to upgrade the state's electric system and repair damage from major storms, like Hurricane Matthew.
Controversially, a $66 million slice of that revenue would recoup costs already spent on coal ash cleanup, and $129 million more will go towards future cleanups.
Coal ash has been a contentious issue ever since Duke's 39,000-ton ash spill into North Carolina's Dan River in 2014. While none of the money from the proposed rate hikes will be used for that specific accident, Duke has also been ordered to close dozens of its coal ash storage basins in the Carolinas—an effort that's expected to cost about $5.1 billion.
Many are opposed to allowing the company to recover costs from the closing of old ash ponds.
"The 15 percent rate hike is an outrageous cost increase to ask consumers to pay when they have no ability to chose another energy provider," Donna Lisenby, clean andsafe energy campaign manager for Waterkeeper Alliance said. "Working families struggling to make ends meet should not be forced to pay for Duke Energy's negligent management of leaking coal ash ponds.
"They want to pass their mistakes on to the land owner. This is not fair," Nancy Gurley, who lives near the utility's plant in Goldsboro, wrote in a comment filed with the state.
Coal ash contains a mix of arsenic, lead, mercury and other potentially toxic elements. Concerns have also arisen over the harmful chemicals leaching into groundwater through the unlined bottoms of pits. Duke denies its basins contaminate groundwater.
Charles Walker Jr., who lives near the company's Allen power plant in western North Carolina, told the AP that he has been forced to use bottled water after the chemicals showed up in his neighborhood in Belmont. He said Duke should bear the brunt of the cleanup costs, not the customers.
"In my opinion, if you're going to be negligent, if you made a mistake, you need to feel the sting. Don't just pass it on," Walker said. "If a septic company comes to my house and accidentally spills sewage all over my property, are they going to send me the bill for that?"
The company told the AP that the expense of cleaning up coal ash is part of the cost of generating electricity. Company spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the company generates about 150 pounds of coal ash a year for each household on average.
The record-breaking flood of the Neuse River inundated three inactive coal ash ponds for five days last week from the Duke Energy H.F. Lee facility, 10 miles upstream of Goldsboro, North Carolina. The flooded ponds are unlined and uncovered, containing more than 1 million tons of coal ash spread over more than 170 acres in a layer 4 to 10 feet deep.
On Oct. 14 at 4:28 p.m., before the flood waters had completely receded from the flooded ash ponds, Duke Energy reported a spill of an undetermined amount of coal ash into the Neuse River to the U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center. On Oct. 15, Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality personnel inspected the inactive ash ponds by foot, claiming they "determined that the amount of material that was displaced would not even fill the bed of an average pickup truck."
On Oct. 17, the flood waters had receded enough to allow the Waterkeeper Alliance rapid response team to launch a boat in the Neuse River to inspect for coal ash releases. Later that afternoon, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper discovered a second coal ash spill coming from the inactive ash ponds at HF Lee. The coating of ash on tree branches high above the receding flood waters proved the spill had been ongoing for almost a week.
Duke Energy and DEQ claim their representatives identified the second spill on Oct. 17 as well, independent of Waterkeeper Alliance's public disclosure of the spill on Oct. 18. The Waterkeeper Alliance rapid response team questions the claim that both DEQ inspectors and Duke Energy staff traveled to the location of the second spill by boat on Oct. 17 and identified the white substance floating on the water and coating the trees.
To the contrary, Duke Energy reportedly told WNCN on the evening of Oct. 18 that it had not yet conducted water sampling from a boat because state regulators had not deemed it safe to boat on the flooded river. This directly contradicts subsequent claims by Duke and DEQ that they had observed the spill by boat on Oct. 17.
"The agency that should be a watchdog protecting the public is acting more like a PR firm trying to protect Duke Energy's reputation," Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Pete Harrison said. "This is the same agency that only a year ago stood up in court and tried to block an agreement between Waterkeeper and Duke that requires Duke to remove all the coal ash from the ash ponds that flooded."
Since we exposed the second spill on the afternoon of Oct. 18, Duke Energy has continued to insist that the spilled material is "not coal ash," falsely claiming that cenospheres are distinct from fly ash, the primary constituent of coal ash.
However, scientists at Appalachian State University used a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to visualize samples of the spilled coal ash cenospheres, and tested the particles for contaminants using Energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX).
The EDX analysis detected dangerous heavy metals attached to the fly ash cenospheres, including antimony and cobalt.
Scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of coal ash cenosphere found in Neuse River on Oct. 17.Dr. Guichuan Hou, PhD, Director of Dewel Microscopy Facility, Research Associate Professor of Biology, Appalachian State University
Energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX) graph of chemicals in or on a coal ash cenosphere that was found in the Neuse River on Oct. 17. The analysis detected antimony, cobalt, and thallium, which can be toxic to people and aquatic life.Dr. Guichuan Hou, PhD, Director of Dewel Microscopy Facility, Research Associate Professor of Biology, Appalachian State University
Duke Energy has previously reported elevated levels of both these contaminants in groundwater monitoring wells located around the inactive ash ponds where the coal ash spill occurred. Throughout the week, Duke Energy attempted to characterize cenospheres as "not coal ash" and "inert" and "not inherently toxic." These talking points carefully avoid acknowledging what the EDX analysis confirms: the spilled coal ash cenospheres, though composed largely out of silica and aluminum, have more dangerous contaminants attached to them.
Harrison called the mischaracterization "a shameful attempt by Duke Energy to trick the public and cover up a large coal ash spill that the company failed to identify and/or failed to report."
Duke Energy even acknowledges on its website that "cenospheres are a form of fly ash." Duke's failure to report the spill may have even been a violation of the company's probation sentence, which it received last year after pleading guilty to federal crimes involving its mismanagement of coal ash at the H.F. Lee facility, among others.
Because Duke Energy did report a spill of coal ash on Oct. 14 (the purported pickup truck load), and the company has emphatically denied that the material discovered by the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper is coal ash, it is clear that material discovered in the river on Oct. 17 was a separate and distinct spill from the one Duke Energy reported on Oct. 14. Based on currently available information, Duke Energy has still not reported the second spill to then National Response Center.
On Oct. 19, the day after our organizations exposed the second coal ash spill, the DEQ claimed its "staff determined on Monday that material found at the H.F. Lee facility in Wayne County is not coal ash," and accused Waterkeeper Alliance of "falsely reporting" the coal ash release. Both Duke and DEQ claimed, without analyzing the spilled material, that it was harmless cenospheres comprised of just aluminum and silica.
"After adopting Duke Energy's indefensible position that the material was not coal ash and requiring no further action from Duke on Wednesday, DEQ has now done an about face, admitting last night that cenospheres are fly ash and ordering Duke to investigate the spills further," Matthew Starr, Sound Rivers' Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, said.
"The DEQ bureaucrats must have woken up yesterday with the embarrassing realization that the state Coal Ash Management Act they're in charge of implementing defines cenospheres as coal ash," Donna Lisenby of Waterkeeper Alliance said.
"Now DEQ seems to be changing its tune and agreeing with what we've been saying all along: Duke Energy is responsible for another coal ash spill into the Neuse River. Unfortunately this one looks like a lot more than a pickup-truck's worth of ash was spilled."
Duke Energy Cooling Pond Dam Collapses in Wake of Hurricane Matthew Flooding https://t.co/nmRCcB8Ftb @Coal_Ash @maryannehitt— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1476409517.0
Waterkeeper Alliance and Sound Rivers have discovered a large coal ash spill into the Neuse River from the Duke Energy H.F. Lee facility, 10 miles upstream of Goldsboro, North Carolina. A substantial but undetermined amount of coal ash was found floating on the surface of the river in a layer over one inch thick. See the video below:
The spill came from at least one of three inactive coal ash ponds containing more than 1 million tons of exposed coal ash. The ponds had been submerged by Hurricane Matthew flood waters for more than seven days until flood waters receded over the weekend. Fly ash coated tree branches as much as seven feet above the river surface, indicating the spill began no later than last Tuesday, when the water level reached a record flood stage.
Waterkeeper Alliance and Sound Rivers discovered a large quantity coal ash spill into the Neuse River from the Duke Energy H.F. Lee facility, 10 miles upstream of Goldsboro. Pete Harrison / Waterkeeper Alliance
Independent microscopic analysis confirmed the white material is fly ash particles known as cenospheres, a waste product of coal combustion.
Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr, said:
"This spill is easily visible to anyone in a boat. The area looks like a winter wonderland of toxic coal ash as it has coated the water and trees. It is hard for me to understand how both Duke Energy and state regulators failed to notice such a large area of coal ash contaminating the Neuse River when they claim to have inspected these very ash ponds on Saturday."
On Oct. 15, Duke Energy issued a press release stating:
"Site inspections at the H.F. Lee Power Plant in Goldsboro, N.C., today confirm there was only very minor erosion of material from an inactive coal ash basin on the site.
The majority of that material, which includes coal ash, remained very close to the inactive basin, on the berm or a few feet away on the basin roadway. The state team that inspected the facility determined that the amount of material that was displaced would not even fill the bed of an average pickup truck."
"When a raging river floods over 1 million tons of coal ash, you're obviously going to get more than a pickup truck's worth of ash polluting the river," said Waterkeeper Alliance staff attorney Pete Harrison.
"It was very troubling to discover such a large amount of ash in the river, especially knowing that untold amounts of ash have been washing out of these ponds for more than a week now. It's baffling how Duke Energy could be so oblivious to such an obvious spill and how state regulators continue to look the other way when it comes to Duke's coal ash problems."
An substantial but undetermined amount of coal ash was found floating on the surface of the Neuse river in a layer more than an inch thick.Pete Harrison / Waterkeeper Alliance & Matt Starr / Upper Neuse Riverkeeper / Sound Rivers
Four of five retired coal ash ponds at the H.F. Lee plant near Goldsboro, North Carolina were inundated for at least 7 days. The submerged ponds contain more than one million tons of coal ash, spread in a layer between four and ten feet thick across an area the size of 130 football fields. In a 2015 site assessment, Duke Energy reported high levels of toxic heavy metals in the flooded ponds, including arsenic, antimony and thallium.
[email protected] 'Asleep at the Switch,' Takes News Station to Inform Them of Dam Breach https://t.co/wrw5EaJJhO @Waterkeeper #NorthCarolina— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1476459615.0
Last week at the H.F. Lee facility, Duke Energy failed to identify a breach in a cooling pond dam the size of a school bus for as much as 24 hours before a local news helicopter spotted the collapsed dam and reported it to officials.
It all began Wednesday morning when Duke Energy issued a statement claiming that the "ash basin and cooling pond dams across the state continue to operate safely," but then helicopter footage from Raleigh's local television station WRAL showed that one of the dams had been breached.
On Thursday, Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert confirmed to the Charlotte Business Journal that the company found out about the breach after WRAL contacted Duke about a half-hour after their statement came out and shared its video. Culbert said a Duke inspection crew had flown over the area earlier in the morning and, at the time, the dam was intact and showed no signs of stress. After they saw the video, the company put out an update acknowledging the damage at the dam.
The breach at the main cooling pond is visible on the right of the photo and is releasing to the Neuse River, which is outside of the frame on the left.Duke Energy
"We are really grateful for their good timing which allowed us to respond and put our emergency protocols into effect," Culbert said.
Donna Lisenby of Waterkeeper Alliance said this incident proves Duke Energy was "asleep at the switch when it was supposed to be monitoring the safety of dams at the H.F. Lee facility during record setting floods."
"They weren't aware of a 50-foot wide breach in the cooling pond dam until notified by a TV crew. How is it possible for a company with helicopters actively flying over dams and hundreds of engineers to miss a 50-foot-wide breach? Apparently, one small WRAL news crew is more competent and better at monitoring the safety and integrity of Duke Energy dams than all the hundreds of Duke Energy employees and contractors combined," Lisenby exclaimed.
Duke Energy said the 545-acre man-made reservoir that was breached does not contain coal ash and supplies cooling water to power plants at the site. It said the active ash basins are not affected by this incident and continue to operate safely.
"We are giving this our fullest attention," said Regis Repko, senior vice president of Fossil-Hydro Operations. "We are assessing what resources we need and will position repair materials so we can respond quickly once conditions are safe to do so."
Duke Energy Cooling Pond Dam Collapses in Wake of Hurricane Matthew Flooding https://t.co/nmRCcB8Ftb @Coal_Ash @maryannehitt— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1476409517.0
Waterkeeper Alliance said they remain very concerned about the integrity of Duke Energy's ash pond dams as the river recedes over the next week.
"This failure likely happened because the river has begun to recede, which is when structural problems often develop," Pete Harrison, staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, and Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, said Wednesday. "Like so many of Duke Energy's coal ash ponds across the state, the cooling pond at Lee has a long history of structural problems—these are disasters waiting to happen."
In addition to concerns at Duke Energy's coal ash ponds, environmentalists are keeping an eye on floodwaters that have washed over factory farms in eastern North Carolina following the storm.
Millions of chickens are feared dead after at least a half-dozen poultry houses were found completely flooded and tens of thousands of carcasses were seen floating the water in Cumberland and Robinson counties.
[This breaking news is an update to a post earlier today on EcoWatch: Millions of Chickens Feared Dead at Factory Farms in Wake of Hurricane Matthew]
Waterkeeper Alliance and Upper Neuse Riverkeeper are responding to and documenting the breach of a 1.2-billion-gallon cooling pond dam at Duke Energy's H.F. Lee plant.
The breach occurred today just minutes after Duke Energy issued a statement claiming that the "Ash basin and cooling pond dams across the state continue to operate safely; in fact, we've been pleased with their good performance during the historic flooding Hurricane Matthew brought to eastern North Carolina."
Pete Harrison, staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, and Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, released the following statement:
"When families are being threatened by some of the worst flooding in North Carolina's history, they should not also have to worry about Duke Energy's dams collapsing.
"This failure likely happened because the river has begun to recede, which is when structural problems often develop. Like so many of Duke Energy's coal ash ponds across the state, the cooling pond at Lee has a long history of structural problems—these are disasters waiting to happen.
"Minutes before the dam collapsed on the cooling pond, Duke Energy issued a statement declaring it was operating safely. Duke continues to claim the dam of a 120-acre coal ash pond at Lee is operating safely, even though the river has only begun to recede. The same ash pond suffered extensive damage after flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. We remain very concerned about the integrity of the ash pond dams at Lee as the river recedes over the next week.
"It has been more than two years since the Dan River disaster, and Duke's coal ash continues to sit behind rickety dams on the banks of flood-prone rivers all across the state. Three ash ponds at the Lee plant, totaling 160 acres, have been completely submerged since Sunday."
In response to Waterkeeper Alliances breaking news, Greenpeace organizer Caroline Hansley said:
"Duke Energy can attack environmental groups all it wants, but the fact remains that it is misleading the public and the people of North Carolina about the safety of its dams, and Governor McCrory is letting the company get away with it- again. As the flood waters from the devastating Hurricane Matthew recede, we need a Governor who will put people's safety and access to clean drinking water before the interests of his previous employer, Duke Energy.
"Duke Energy has a terrible track record when it comes to protecting the safety of North Carolina's waterways and drinking water. In the two years since the Dan River coal ash disaster, Duke Energy has fought efforts to clean up leaking coal ash pits which threaten the health and safety of nearby communities. Instead of cleaning up its hazardous messes, Duke uses its political influence with its previous employee, Governor McCrory, allowing the company to leave 70 percent of its toxic coal ash leaking across the state.
"Hurricane Matthew proves again that Governor McCrory will always put corporate interests before the people of North Carolina."
Millions of Chickens Feared Dead at Factory Farms in Wake of Hurricane Matthew https://t.co/nM8nDJiflQ @Waterkeeper @RobertKennedyJr @NRDC— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1476283459.0
Norway's central bank announced on Wednesday that the Norwegian Government's Pension Fund, worth $900 billion, will no longer invest in Duke Energy.
This decision is the result of an investigation by the Council on Ethics for the pension fund, which found that Duke Energy's failure to adequately respond to its leaking coal ash impoundments in North Carolina constituted "an unacceptable risk of severe environmental damage."
Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina in February 2014. The spill was the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.Waterkeeper Alliance
Based on its assessment, the council recommended that Duke Energy be excluded from the fund on ethical grounds. Nearly 4.7 million Duke shares and bonds, valued at $545 million, have been sold by the Norwegian Pension Fund.
In May 2015, I presented data and information to the Norwegian Parliament and Council on Ethics about the extensive and ongoing water pollution from Duke Energy coal ash ponds, advocating that they sell Duke Energy stocks for ethical reasons.
Waterkeeper recently sent a data packet to Norway emphasizing that Duke had not stopped ongoing leaks of heavy metals into drinking water supplies and plans to leave 70 percent of its coal ash in leaking ponds in North Carolina.
I am thrilled that the Council on Ethics determined that Duke's abysmal performance and severe environmental risk still posed by Duke Energy's leaking ash ponds warranted a special divestiture.
Duke Energy Coal Ash Ponds Contaminate Wells, Residents Told Not to Drink the Water http://t.co/9wN7W69hE3 @BeyondCoal @dirtyenergy— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1429840207.0
Duke Energy joins the list of many companies whose performance is so unacceptable to the Council of Ethics that they are black-listed as unsuitable for investment by one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds.
Waterkeeper Alliance will continue to present to major institutional shareholders of coal companies to inform them of the unacceptable environmental risk of leaking ash ponds into drinking water supplies. Until this industry finally stops its recalcitrant and illegal behavior, we will continue to advocate for divestment from these major polluters all over the world.
By Heather Moyer
Junior Walk and I are standing where a mountain used to be. We're on a pile of rocks surrounded by even more piles of rocks and boulders. But that's not what has our attention.
"There it is—the largest earthen dam in the western hemisphere," Junior said.
We're looking at the Brushy Fork impoundment—a massive dam holding back 7.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge. Coal sludge contains a scary assortment of chemicals—from manganese to cadmium, lead and mercury and more. And we're standing in front of a 7.8 billion gallon "lake" of it. Down below the sludge are hundreds of homes, filled with people hoping that dam never breaches.
Our journey to this shocking site started on a much lighter note down at the Coal River Mountain Watch office in front of a four-wheeler. Junior tossed me a helmet and had me get on the back. I'd never been on an ATV, so I was a little nervous and excited.
"Do you want to go slow or not-so-slow?" he asked with a grin.
You only live once, so I said, "Step on it."
To say the trail to Brushy Fork was a gut-rattler would be an understatement.
It's too bad such a fun, muddy ride included such awful stops along the way. We reached a fork and stopped so Junior could show me acid mine drainage. He told me about the man we'd just waved at before heading up the trail.
"He used to get his water from the creek—but look at it now," Junior said.
The water was orange due to a leak from an underground mine in the mountain in front of us. The man successfully sued the coal company ("Thanks to Coal River Mountain Watch," added Junior) and now the company has to bring him all his water.
As we stood staring at the grotesque orange stream, a frog moved in the water. Junior told me how biodiverse the region is and listed different kinds of frogs, salamanders, newts and more that he's seen.
We rode up a very steep trail to a cabin Junior's family and others had built years before he was born. It's a nice little getaway—but just through the trees you can see the Edwight mountaintop removal site the next mountain over. You can't get away from coal in coal country.
As we rounded another steep trail, the massive Brushy Fork coal sludge lake came into view. Its size is mind-boggling. When we first saw it through the trees I thought we'd stop to look there. Instead it took another 15 minutes to come around to an entrance point.
Standing near the edge was breathtaking. We were surrounded by high steep walls made by blasting away parts of the mountain. Trees teetered on the edges. It was like someone had taken a knife and sliced around them, like they were the middle of a cake and the other pieces had been cut away.
Junior pointed out how close the company had been blasting next to the impoundment—a scary thought considering the devastation a breach would cause.
"This impoundment has been here for years, but they're still adding to it," he said.
Again, I was struck with silence. What words should one have when seeing something so awful?
All that happened because I want the lights to turn on when I flick the switch. Because I want to watch TV and use my computer. And people die underground or get black lung for the same reasons.
This is all pretty sobering.
"What do you think of it all?" Junior asked as he got back on the ATV.
"I have no words besides 'this is f**king awful,'" I replied.
"That about sums it up."
There are sites and sludge impoundments like this all over the region—and even more mountains are permitted for this devastation. How do you not just sit down right there where the mountain used to be and cry and give up?
Back at the Coal River Mountain Watch office I chatted more with Junior and director Deb Jarrell. Their work is an uphill battle, but they do find positives.
Their new office in Naoma, for example. They don't get harassed as much as they used to, said Debbie and some neighbors are even supportive at times.
"Many of them do like coal, but some of them have quietly told us that they're on our side," she explained. "I think the biggest issue here is that people don't like what mountaintop removal coal mining does, but it provides their family a job, so they aren't going to speak out."
A paycheck vs. mountains and clean water. It's an age-old battle in coal country.
The Coal River Mountain Watch staff does provide as many opportunities as possible for the public to speak out against coal. They regularly spar with state and coal company officials to ask for public hearings on new permits being issued in the area.
I asked what those hearings are usually like and get noises of frustration from both Junior and Debbie. Debbie shook her head. Junior rolled his eyes. "It's like talking to a brick wall," he said of all the officials involved.
But they keep fighting. Their latest battle is against the familiar foe of Alpha Natural Resources. The company is in the process of applying for permits to blow the top off of another 5,000 acres of Coal River Mountain.
Neither Debbie nor Junior can imagine not doing this work to protect the mountains they love so dearly. It's their mission—their calling. And they welcome anyone to come see what they love so much and join them in the work.