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The drama surrounding the cleanup of dangerous, leaking coal ash ponds continues to unfold in North Carolina. Last week the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced its assessment of the state’s many polluted sites and earlier this week the state legislature proposed changes to the existing law governing coal ash cleanup. But before we dig into the details, let’s be clear about what’s at stake. Clean water is one of those things that many of us, thankfully, can take for granted. We trust what comes out of our taps; and we should, as no one should have to fear that this essential ingredient in our daily lives poses a danger.

Sadly, that’s simply not the case for many folks facing the threat of toxic coal ash contamination in their drinking water. Coal ash is a waste byproduct of burning coal, and it’s produced in huge amounts (it’s the second biggest waste stream in the US, after municipal garbage). Coal ash often is stored in ponds near the power plant where it was made and, because most coal-fired power plants require millions of gallons of water for daily operation, that means that these ponds sit dangerously close to rivers and lakes that we count on for drinking water and recreation.

Coal ash contains a dangerous mix of heavy metals and chemicals that pose a direct threat to the health and well-being of the local environment and folks living in nearby communities. In fact, almost 70 percent of all coal ash ponds are located near low income communities or communities of color.

Few states have taken proactive measures to clean up this toxic sludge, and EPA protections still aren’t strong enough to get the job done on their own. A recent story from the Winston-Salem Journal highlights the uncertainty and helplessness folks living near these coal ash dumps feel. As Amy Brown, who lives close to one of Duke’s leaking ash ponds and whose drinking well water was found to contain cancer-causing hexavalent chromium at unsafe levels, has asked:

“Why is it so hard to get these people to want to protect us?” asked Brown, referring to state government [of North Carolina]. “When did it become acceptable in this state to ignore the cries of a mother for her children?”

A devastating coal ash spill in 2014 put North Carolina at the epicenter of the coal ash drama. The spill released at least 39,000 tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of toxic wastewater into the Dan River from a coal ash pond at one of Duke Energy’s retired coal-fired power plants. Ranked as the third-worst coal ash spill in American history, it stands as a tragic reminder of what coal-fired power generation can really cost a community and its environment.

In response to the Dan River spill, North Carolina passed legislation in August of 2014 requiring the cleanup of all coal ash pits statewide. However, many critical decisions pertaining to the actual nature and timeline of the cleanup process were left for a later date.

This March, the DEQ held hearings across the state to seek public input on how to classify the risks posed by Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds. A classification of “high risk” would require Duke to remove its coal ash from ponds and store it in lined, dry landfills, away from water resources and to complete such clean up by 2019. Ponds classified as “intermediate risk” also would have to be excavated with ash moved to landfills by 2024. Coal ash at ponds deemed “low risk,” however, could remain in place and covered with a permanent cap. Duke would not have to cap its “low risk” ponds until 2029.

We believe no coal ash pond should remain a threat to local communities, and we fought hard to ensure DEQ’s classifications did not treat any community as a low priority. Hundreds of folks came out across the state to testify at community hearings. They spoke about why the state should require the full cleanup of the coal ash ponds near their homes, why the dangers posed by leaving millions of tons of toxic ash in place far outweigh any possible benefits and why clean water is so critically important to the health and well being of all families — not just those fortunate enough to live outside the shadow of coal ash pollution.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of community members, organizers, local groups and the Sierra Club, last week DEQ released its classifications for Duke’s coal ash ponds in North Carolina, concluding that all ponds posed at least an intermediate risk and, therefore, must be excavated and fully cleaned up by 2024. While we had pushed for “high risk” classifications and a cleanup deadline of 2019, this is an important step forward.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of steps back as well. First, DEQ announced that it would seek the authority to revisit its decisions on coal-ash pond classification in 18 months in order to allow Duke to submit additional information that could justify lower risk levels, and thus less comprehensive cleanups could still be a possibility. And, just this week, the North Carolina House passed a bill that would reopen the classification process and lead to further delays in long-overdue cleanups. On a more positive note, the bill includes provisions directing Duke Energy to make permanent drinking water supplies available to at least some of the people living near the leaking ponds.

Clearly, we still have our work cut out for us to eliminate this pollution once and for all. We’re still working hard, supporting our friends and allies and will continue to push DEQ and Duke to abide by the law, ensuring a timely cleanup of every coal ash pond in the state.

Beyond North Carolina, just about every state in the nation is home to communities dealing with coal ash contamination, and we’re fighting for those places as well — like Illinois, where community leaders just held a press conference in the Illinois State Capitol to call for improvements to proposed rules for coal ash sites in the state. For families living downstream from this dangerous pollution, that relief can’t come fast enough.

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