Advocates deliver 40,000 signatures to McCrory demanding stronger coal ash action

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Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr addresses the media alongside a family directly impacted by Duke Energy’s leaking coal ash pond at the Lee power plant near Goldsboro.

Advocates and activists for stronger action on coal ash than is included in the new state law that officially took effect today gathered outside the Old State Capitol in downtown Raleigh this morning to deliver more than 40,000 signatures to Governor Pat McCrory. The signatures represented roughly one North Carolinian for each ton of coal ash spilled into the Dan River at Duke Energy’s Eden facility in February.

Speakers at the event organized by the group Environment North Carolina were flanked by volunteers who held aerial photos of each of the ten coal ash dumps that will be left essentially unaddressed by the new legislation.

Kim Brewer, a former resident of Dukeville near the Buck Steam Plant in Rowan County assailed the new law as doing “nothing” to help her community. “There’s hexavalent chromium in our wells, and my two daughters were born with serious birth defects. My neighbors have suffered from brain tumors, cancer and respiratory problems that we believe are connected to coal ash pollution. We deserve a full cleanup. I don’t want any other family to go through what we’ve been through.”

Amy Adams, a former state DENR employee who now spearheads advocacy efforts on Duke’s coal ash pits and ponds for the group Appalachian Voices, targeted Governor McCrory for criticism:  “From the time Duke Energy spilled 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash in to the Dan River until today, Governor McCrory has gone way too easy on his former employer. As a result, ten communities impacted by coal ash in North Carolina are stuck in limbo, without any assurance that they’ll get a full cleanup. Governor McCrory should use his authority to protect those communities by demanding cleanup now.”

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An aerial photo of the Buck Power station coal ash pond in Rowan County.

Caroline Armijo of Stokes County, who grew up near the Belews Creek plant, related the stories of numerous friends and family members who have battled and/or lost their lives to especially aggressive cancers — a reality that she said she found hard to believe was not related to well water pollution caused by seepage from the nearby coal ash pond.

Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, devoted his remarks to highlighting the problems at Duke’s Lee Power Plant near Goldsboro where, he said, arsenic has been found in groundwater near the Neuse River at 60 times the concentration permitted by federal law. Starr echoed the claims of previous speakers that merely covering pits and ponds like the one at the Lee plant “in place” rather than removing the ash to a lined landfill will ultimately prove inadequate and perhaps disastrous.

According to Starr, “The Neuse River is a drinking water source, as well as a popular fishing and recreation destination, but that’s all at risk due to coal ash pollution from the Lee Power Plant.” Starr went on to point out that in just a three-year span “seeps” from the site (what he called “a nice word for poison”) had caused at least 279 groundwater standards violations in just one three-year period.

At the conclusion of the event, speakers carted the boxes of petitions featuring the 40,000-plus signatures (pictured below) into the Governor’s office in the Old Capitol.

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One Comment

  1. Robert Merrick

    September 20, 2014 at 10:24 am

    Hats off to the Pulse and Rob Schofield for covering this important subject that matters to Carolinians. It’s time for citizens to demand that coal ash is taxed so coal burners are incentivized to harness technology to eliminate coal ash entirely. If politicians refuse to protect us from this toxic mess, vote them out – – in just a few more weeks. Those 40,000 petitioners should tell their relatives and neighbors to vote against the politicians who did not immediately act on their petition – – get new candidates to pledge immediate support to clean up NC from decades of mindless dumping.

    Note to incumbents: Technology already exists so coal ash can be totally eliminated! Don’t believe energy companies who tell you it can’t be done. China is already doing it. If a tax of $10 per ton of coal ash is levied on every coal-fired plant in the US, that would motivate coal-fired plant operators to use existing, proven technologies to rid landfills and mines of this toxic menace. With 140,000,000 tons of coal ash per year being produced, about 90,000,000 million tons is being buried and stored for later disposal (fill), while the rest (about 45,000,000 tons) is being used in concrete and other products. Remarkably, not a single coal-fired plant in the United States has tried to harness the US Navy’s plasma-arc waste disposal system to vitrify coal ash. The solution has already been developed, but the companies have not been incentivized to adopt it.

    Do the math. That 90 million tons/year of coal ash being buried generates 900 million dollars of tax that can be used to clean up the mess that’s being made by current coal ash disposal methods. Coal fired plants can use plasma-arc vitrification systems – the same being used on the newest US Aircraft carriers – to vitrify the ash so it is reduced by 96% or more into an inert glass. And if technology to gasify the vitrified coal ash is adopted, it may be possible to recover a portion of the wasted energy for steam, which in turn generates electricity. That process could negate the “Coal Ash Tax” because it could provide electricity to consumers, keep our environment clean, and generate revenue for the coal-fired plants – – all at a much lower cost than hauling and storing the ash as being done now.

    Here’s the plan. All coal ash produced by US coal-burning energy plants will be taxed at a rate of $10 per ton. At the rate of 140,000,000 tons per year generated in the US, the coal ash tax potentially generates $1.4 billion per year that would be held in an environment cleanup trust fund, controlled by publicly elected representatives living in communities near coal ash disposal sites, much like your mayors and sheriffs – – make it local and not from some fantasy land in DC. And to spice up the motivation, when coal ash disposal sites are located within a flood plain or near a waterway, the coal tax would be doubled to a rate of $20 per ton.

    Qualified waiver incentives to escape the coal ash tax are simple. First, the coal ash tax is waived on ash that is recycled for building materials, which currently averages 40% at typical US coal-fired plants. Of the 140,000,000 tons currently produced each year in the US, about 56,000,000 tons are reused in building materials. That brings the Coal Ash Tax Trust Fund (let’s call it the CATT Fund) down to an annual potential of $840,000,000 for the coal ash that’s being disposed in landfills. But if a landfill or holding area (e.g., pond) is on a flood plain or within 500 yards of a waterway, an additional tax of $10 per ton is levied on ash disposed in those sites. For round numbers, let’s assume the CATT Fund will collect $1 billion in taxes annually for the mix of disposal sites being used today.

    At a $1 billion in new taxes, one would think energy companies will be motivated to eliminate coal ash altogether. Their second option is to apply a technology that was developed, tested and is being implemented by the US Department of Defense. A very-high-temperature process known as plasma-arc waste destruction is currently being installed on the next-generation of US Navy aircraft carriers. These plasma-arc systems can be optimized for a variety of waste streams. For coal ash, a plasma-arc system can be packaged to vitrify and gasify about 98% of the coal ash currently being buried in landfills. That’s roughly 82,000,000 tons of coal ash that can be kept out of your waterways and nearby landfills using a very affordable alternative to landfills.

    So what do you do with the remaining 2,000,000 tons that’s left each year from plasma-arc vitrification? This glassy-like residual material is an inert binder of minerals that traps traces of formerly toxic residuals, which can also be used for building materials beyond the current concrete and gypsum use. But there are dozens of other potential and high-value uses, particularly if you are a ceramics engineer who can add certain ingredients to the molten glass as it pours out of the plasma-arc vitrification system. How about amorphous photovoltaic cells? It’s possible to produce an 18% efficient photovoltaic cell from vitrified coal ash (as long as Solyndra isn’t working on it).

    The third motivator for energy companies using coal-fired plants is to set aside a research and development fund derived from a 10% portion of the CATT Fund. Qualified companies would be able to propose R&D projects and receive matching funds to achieve greater efficiencies in coal ash elimination or improve processes, such as using a plasma-arc vitrification system to generate synthetic gas that can drive a turbine generator. If a company’s coal ash elimination R&D project is successfully demonstrated and implemented, the company would be reimbursed from the CATT Fund’s R&D portion.
    In summary, neither energy companies nor their electricity customers would have to pay a cent of coal ash tax if all of the coal ash is reused for building materials, eliminated with technology such as a plasma-arc system or converted to energy by yet-discovered processes via CATT Fund.

    Eliminating coal ash is technically feasible, but politically impossible. Most of the career politicians throughout the US are so technically and programmatically deficient; they are incapable of resolving these relatively simple challenges through legislative incentives. I recommend voting against every political incumbent in the November elections to rid the nation of the real ash problem – – dump their ashes!

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