Our series of articles about getting outside in the Charlotte area to be active on the Carolina Thread Trail network and Catawba River is presented in partnership with local orthopedic-care provider OrthoCarolina.
With everything that’s happened on a local, national and international level over the last 10 years, it might be easy to forget the time less than a decade ago when coal ash was front and center in the North Carolina news cycle.
In December 2019, a years-long legal battle came to an end when the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and other organizations reached a settlement to clean up the coal ash pits that remained at six Duke Energy sites along North Carolina’s waterways.
Beginning before that settlement was reached, the cleanup effort spanned 14 Duke sites, many of which included more than one unlined coal ash pit. When finished, it will be the largest environmental cleanup in United States history. When that time comes, environmental organizations, activists and residents living near the sites hope to finally dust off their hands and put the issue to bed. But will that be the end of it? We spoke with folks who were on the frontline of the fight to get their insight on the historic battle over coal ash on the Catawba River.
Why is coal ash a problem for the Catawba River?
Coal ash, the waste that remains after burning coal to produce electricity, contains toxic heavy metals including arsenic, boron, lead, mercury, selenium and chromium. If not managed and stored properly, those toxic contaminants can pollute streams, lakes, rivers, groundwater, drinking water and the air we breathe. Exposure to the toxins can lead to cancer, birth defects, gastrointestinal illnesses and reproductive problems.
“It was just the cheapest way of doing business and at the time it was legal, so they were following the minimum federal requirements and producing power as cheaply as possible and really just externalizing the risk and externalizing the pollution,” said Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones.
Jones leads the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation (CRF), a small nonprofit based in Charlotte that focuses on threats to clean water along the Catawba-Wateree River, including coal ash.
Jones is CRF’s chief scientist and advocate. He is responsible for coordinating the organization’s testing, sampling, research and legislative initiatives. For nearly eight years, the CRF led the charge in state and federal court to fight Duke Energy and ensure coal ash cleanup. While Duke Energy had already begun to shut down or transition its coal-burning plants before 2019, the settlement ensured that it would be responsible for a full clean-up at all of its sites.
The state-ordered cleanup involves moving millions of tons of coal ash from open, unlined water pits to dry, lined landfills. The settlement aims to reverse decades of damage from toxic chemicals in the ash seeping through the soil into the groundwater and remove the risk of a catastrophic spill like the one that occurred on the Dan River in Eden in 2014.
A timeline of the legal battle over coal ash in North Carolina
Throughout the 20th century, Duke built coal-burning facilities across North Carolina, and at the turn of the century, four of the country’s high-hazard coal ash ponds were located at three Duke sites on the banks of the Catawba River:
- Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman
- Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake (the source of 80% of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s drinking water)
- Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie
In 2010, Charlotte journalist Rhiannon Fionn began reporting on the ill effects of coal ash in the local water supply and the Catawba River. She continued to follow the story through the years, putting pressure on Duke Energy and holding the corporation accountable for what was happening near its pits.
Water sampling by the Catawba Riverkeeper in 2012 showed contamination and unpermitted discharges at Mountain Island Lake and Lake Wylie. The following year, the organization partnered with Waterkeeper Alliance, Southern Environmental Law Center, the state Department of Environmental Quality and other groups to sue Duke Energy under the Clean Water Act.
On Feb. 2, 2014, while litigation was ongoing, a pipe collapsed under an unlined pit at Duke’s Dan River Steam Station in Eden, gushing nearly 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. The crisis prompted the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA), which called for testing at all North Carolina coal ash sites.
Duke eventually plead guilty to nine criminal charges and paid a $102 million fine with five years probation for criminal negligence and illegal discharges, including those first identified by the Catawba Riverkeeper.
Further testing spurred by CAMA revealed high levels of toxic elements associated with coal ash in the well water of hundreds of residents living near unlined pits in the greater Charlotte area. Deborah Graham of Salisbury and Amy Brown of Belmont were among those issued “don’t drink” warnings, leaving them unable to drink their own well water.
Brown and Graham were outspoken in the fight to get updates from Duke about the safety of their wells. After three years of living on bottled water, Duke finally connected affected residents to city water in 2018.
Duke Energy spokesperson Bill Norton cited a 2016 study from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment that suggested hexavalent chromium, one of the most prevalent chemicals found in wells near Duke’s coal-burning sites, doesn’t stem from leaking coal ash ponds as many people feared.
“This doesn’t mean it poses less of a threat,” Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School, wrote in the report. “The bottom line is that we need to protect the health of North Carolinians from the naturally occurring threat of hexavalent chromium, while also protecting them from harmful contaminants such as arsenic and selenium, which our previous research has shown do derive from leaking coal ash ponds. The impact of leaking coal ash ponds on water resources is still a major environmental issue.”
On Dec. 31, 2019, Duke reached a settlement with the state and several community groups (including CRF) to clean up and excavate its remaining six coal ash sites in North Carolina, including two in the Catawba basin: the Marshall site on Lake Norman and the Allen site on Lake Wylie.
Greenpeace shines a spotlight on Duke Energy’s political plays
While the CRF led the charge against Duke Energy in court, groups like Greenpeace North Carolina and Charlotte Environmental Action, a spinoff of Occupy Charlotte, were in the streets making noise. They regularly held performative protests that kept the attention of the press and public.
“You can imagine being out there with dirty water and dumping coal in front of the [Bank of America] headquarters Uptown and press conferences left and right,” said Michael Zytkow, who was with Greenpeace until 2017. “It was really, honestly, a time when environmental action was very consistent in a way which some people are still continuing in Charlotte, but that was kind of like a recent peak.”
Activists targeted banks like Bank of America that invested in Duke’s coal-burning practices, while also calling out politicians that accepted large amounts of Duke’s money.
In one protest, Greenpeace shed light on Duke’s political spending with then Gov. Pat McCrory, who has a long history with Duke Energy, by acting out a tug-of-war with Duke and politicians on one side and residents on the other. In another they drew comparisons to Duke’s hold over leaders with a life-size “Dukeopoly” game, in which activists were the board pieces.
Theatrics aside, Zytkow said he’s most proud of the work he did raising awareness and advocating on behalf of residents who live near Duke’s coal ash sites.
“It shouldn’t have to take a tragedy for people to understand that we need to have policies in place to prevent these things from happening in the first place,” Zytkow said.
Where we stand today on cleaning up coal ash in North Carolina
Excavating Duke’s unlined coal ash pits removes the risk of catastrophic failure on the Catawba River, ensures groundwater contamination won’t occur and provides peace of mind to residents on well water, Jones told Queen City Nerve.
There’s a lot of mercury in the Catawba’s waters from Duke’s coal burning before the Clean Air Act, which is why there are fish advisories across the basin. Jones said much of the recent damage done by Duke is reversible once the ash is removed — arsenic and selenium elements don’t break down but will eventually dilute back to a safe concentration.
So, where do we stand with the cleanup?
According to Norton with Duke Energy, ash excavation is complete at:
- Dan River Steam Station in Eden
- Riverbend Steam Station in Gaston County
- Sutton Plant in Wilmington
Remaining sites to be excavated:
- Rogers Energy Complex (formerly Cliffside Steam Station) in Mooresboro
- Marshall Steam Station in Catawba County
- Mayo Plant near Roxboro
- Allen Steam Station in Belmont
The completed excavations, totaling 16 million tons, will finish in Asheville next year. All ash is either moving to lined landfills or being recycled at new reprocessing facilities at Buck, Cape Fear and H.F. Lee. Recycled ash is used as filler in cement and wallboard.
Norton said ash removal has begun at Rogers and Marshall sites and crews will start the Mayo site in September. The deadline for the Marshall site cleanup on Lake Norman (17.3 million tons of ash) is December 2035.
Allen has two pits on Lake Wylie with 19.5 million tons of ash. Duke recently got the permit to dig a new on-site landfill and will aim to move the ash there by December 2038.
“We can move about 1.5 million tons of ash per year at any given site,” Norton said. “Resources aren’t the constraint, it’s a logistics issue.”
Zytkow is pleased with the progress Duke has made so far, but admits he hasn’t really thought about coal ash ponds in years — not like he used to, anyway. After leaving Greenpeace, Zytkow co-founded Potions & Pixels, a nonprofit organization that utilizes games to create social impact.
He said talking about his time protesting against coal ash was like “taking a trip down memory lane.”
“You always have to keep one eye on it because you want to make sure the work you spent years of your life doing is going to amount to some real change,” Zytkow said. “When a lot of us left this work, we felt it was in a good place, that it was moving in a good direction.”
While Zytkow has moved on, Jones and others at CRF are still keeping a close eye on the cleanup, though they’re also beginning to shift their attention elsewhere.
“We are excited to be able to spend some of our efforts on other issues affecting water quality,” Jones said. “We are very proud of this and very happy to be moving on and being able to focus on other areas of environmental protection, while still monitoring the cleanups in the background.”