Five years after Dan River coal ash spill, Duke Energy settlement would add land to Mayo State Park


The Mayo River in Mayo State Park, Rockingham County (Photo: NC State Parks)

This story has been updated with news regarding the purchase and transfer of the 64 acres by Duke Energy.

Update July 29: The dates for the public listening sessions about the plan have been announced. 

The North Carolina event is scheduled for Wednesday Aug. 7, 6-8 p.m., Eden Town Hall, 308 E. Stadium Drive, Eden, NC.

A settlement between Duke Energy and state and federal officials over the 2014 Dan River spill would impose no significant financial penalties, but it would preserve key tracts of land along the Mayo River, according to court documents.

Announced Friday, the agreement is between the utility and plaintiffs the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the NC Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

In addition to Virginia projects, in North Carolina, Duke Energy would purchase up to 64 acres of floodplain and riverbank along the Mayo River and give it to state for conservation. The land would be added to Mayo River State Park in Mayodan, in Rockingham County. The cost of the acreage has yet to be determined. (Update: As of July 11, Duke Energy provided $363,000 to help Piedmont Land Conservancy acquire the land as part of early restoration activities conducted under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration process, which is the basis for the settlement.)

The proposal will be subject to a 45-day public comment period. DEQ spokeswoman Laura Leonard said the public information meeting dates would be announced soon.

Conservation groups had unsuccessfully tried to buy the tracts from the private landowners because of disagreements about the price.

The agreement is one of several civil settlements and criminal penalties assessed against Duke Energy over the Dan River coal ash spill. On February 2, 2014, a stormwater pipe underneath the primary coal ash basin at the Dan River Steam Station near Eden failed, spilling 27 million gallons of coal ash wastewater and between 30,000 and 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

Monitoring and sampling indicated that concentrations of hazardous substances, such as arsenic, lead, copper, selenium, and zinc, in surface water and river sediment were high enough to harm fish and other aquatic life.

Between Dan River Steam Station and its headwaters at Kerr Lake — nearly 100 miles away — a coal ash bar formed that was 75 feet long and 15 feet wide and contained five feet of ash or ash/sand mix.

Federal and state environmental officials collected and reviewed monitoring data in the Dan River for several years after the cleanup. During that time, they also gathered public input on potential restoration projects in the watershed that would equal the damages that occurred as a result of the contamination.

During the initial scoping phase in 2014, the public, including environmental groups, recommended 30 restoration projects along the North Carolina


portion of the Dan River and its tributaries. Of those, 68 members of the public, the Town of Mayodan, Piedmont Land Conservancy, the Conservation Fund and other groups recommended expansions and improvements to Mayo State Park, according to public documents.

A USFWS summary noted the Mayo improvements “meet the all criteria identified by the Trustees for a good restoration project to address the injuries caused by the spill.”

The land conservation is expected to increase quality and quantity of habitat, connect with other natural areas and create new recreational benefits within the Dan River watershed.

The Mayo River joins the Dan River upstream of the Duke Energy spill site. It serves as habitat for many endangered and rare species, including the James Spinymussel and Roanoke Logperch.

Although it took five years to reach the settlement, that is not considered a long time for damage assessments to natural resources, USFWS spokesman Phil Kloer told Policy Watch.

“The coal ash spill was a unique event,” Kloer said. “It takes time to assess the damage of such an event on the natural resources, animals and vegetation.”

The consent decree resolving natural resource damage liabilities for the Yellowstone River Oil Spill, which occurred July 1, 2011, was entered by the court on December 12, 2016. Unlike the Dan River spill, there was no restoration in the Yellowstone case before the final settlement.

“The timing of the [Dan River] settlement did not delay the restoration of natural resources and recreational services,” Kloer said.

In addition to projects in Virginia, Duke Energy had previously funded the acquisition of 340 acres near the river and transferred the title to North Carolina State Parks.

In 2015, the EPA fined Duke Energy $68 million in criminal penalties, plus a $24 million community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to benefit the ecosystems of North Carolina and Virginia. Duke was also required to provide $10 million to a mitigation bank for the purchase of wetlands or riparian buffers to offset the long-term environmental damage. DEQ fined Duke an additional $6 million.

The company’s probation period ends within the next year.

Paul Draovitch, Duke Energy vice president for environment, health and safety, told the Associated Press that “these environmental projects conserve important land, improve aquatic habitat and allow more community access to nature and the outdoors.”

Environment, News, public health

Scientists recommend expanding investigation of suspected thyroid cancer clusters in NC

Source: National Cancer Institute

North Carolina health officials should expand their investigations of suspected thyroid cancer clusters, including potential environmental causes such as coal ash, according to recommendations by a panel of doctors, scientists and medical investigators. 

The panel, many members of which are from North Carolina, convened in May and issued its report last week.

The state’s Central Cancer Registry statistics show that for the past 23 years Iredell County has reported statistically higher incidences of papillary thyroid cancer than the state average, as much as double or three times greater. In May 2018, state and county health officials designated two zip codes near Lake Norman — 28115 and 28117 — as suspected cancer clusters.

There were 260 cases of thyroid cancer diagnosed in those two zip codes from 1995 to 2016; statistically, the expected number was 124.  From 2012 to 2016, 110 cases were reported, compared to 46, the number expected.

Many of the thyroid cancer cases in Iredell County were reported among teenage girls. Although thyroid cancer rates are rising nationwide, it is still largely a disease of middle age, afflicting primarily women over 50. It is unusual for young women to develop it.

Sen. Vickie Sawyer, a Republican from Iredell County, co-sponsored Senate Bill 297, which directs the NC Policy Collaboratory to assemble a research team to help determine whether cancer clusters exist in the state, and where. The bill had bipartisan support, including several Democratic secondary sponsors, and passed both chambers. The measure was sent to the governor on July 11.

Source: National Cancer Institute

Although North Carolina as a whole ranks low among states for thyroid cancer incidences among women under 50, several counties are outliers. Elevated rates of thyroid cancer have also been reported in Rowan County, directly east of Iredell, and in five counties in southeastern North Carolina: Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender, Onslow and Duplin.

Cancer clusters are hard to pinpoint, especially in areas where people move frequently. Other environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors can also play a role in the development of cancer. The only known environmental risk factor for thyroid cancer is radiation.

Nonetheless, the panel identified ways to at least partially overcome some of those obstacles, including more detailed population studies to compare areas with elevated cancer rates and those without. These studies should also involve neighboring states to account for possible patterns in border counties.

Calculating cancer rates is dependent on accurate data. The panel said doctors should be encouraged to provide timely, consistent reporting of cancer cases to the state registry. And access to health care can also skew the results. The panel advised that future investigations should examine the role of health care access plays in cancer diagnoses.

“Areas with strong access to health care and cancer screening sometimes report higher rates of cancer than areas without such services,” the recommendations read. “Identifying areas where there are many medical practices can provide insight into how medical surveillance may contribute to thyroid cancer diagnosis.”

University scientists have already begun studying possible environmental links to the high rate of thyroid cancer in Iredell County. Heather Stapleton and Kate Hoffman, scientists at Duke University, found three homes where people had been recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer also had significantly elevated levels of compounds used in flame retardants.

Susan Wind’s teenage daughter was among the 110 people diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the affected zip codes within the last five years. Wind raised $110,000 for Stapleton’s study and has been an outspoken proponent for a detailed study of the clusters. “I believe the state should fund this research, too,” said Wind, whose family recently moved out of North Carolina because of concerns about the number of cancer cases — of several types — in their neighborhood. “It should not have to be from a private citizen whose kids got cancer. So once this study runs out of money, what is the state going to do next?”

The budget bill, still hung up over Medicaid expansion and other matters, contains no funding for studying suspected thyroid cancer clusters, though it does include $100,000 for a study of a suspected cancer cluster involving ocular melanoma in the Mecklenburg County town of Huntersville.

The panel advised the state to also investigate “potential associations” between exposure to coal ash, coal burning emissions, and papillary thyroid cancer. The two affected zip codes in Iredell County are close to Lake Norman, the site of Duke Energy’s Marshall Steam Plant. Coal ash was also widely used as structural fill throughout Iredell County.

“Given the concerns in North Carolina communities about the potential health effects of exposure to coal ash,” whose compounds can emit radiation when they decay, the recommendations read, more study is warranted. “Such studies should consider the most likely ways that people are exposed to harmful chemicals associated with coal ash: breathing them in or drinking contaminated water.”

Wind said the amount of coal ash used as fill in Iredell County was not fully documented. “It was a common practice to use coal ash like dirt, dumped in fields and sold as top soil for flower beds,” she said. “This sounds like a good hypothesis to test.”

UNC and Virginia Tech researchers recently found that more than three-quarters of 786 drinking water wells tested in Iredell County had levels of Chromium 6 above the state health advisory level of 0.07 parts per billion. Chromium 6 both occurs naturally and is present in coal ash.

Eighty-five percent of Iredell County wells had levels of vanadium, also naturally occurring and found in coal ash, above 0.3 ppb, the state’s interim maximum concentration for groundwater.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services said the agency “is reviewing the input from the panel and identifying the role we can play in helping to move these recommendations forward.”

[Note: This story has been updated to make clear that the proposed budget bill includes funding to study a suspected cancer cluster involving ocular melanoma in the town of Huntersville.]


After DEQ denies WesternGeco’s request to conduct offshore seismic testing, company appeals to feds

Last year coastal residents packed a hearing and rally in opposition to offshore drilling and seismic testing. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

A clash between the state Department of Environmental Quality and an offshore drilling company has escalated to the federal level, with the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross potentially intervening.

WesternGeco plans to shoot air guns  every 10 seconds, 208 days a year, at 225 to 260 decibels — louder than a rocket launch — from 19 miles offshore from the coast of Maryland, past North Carolina and further down the East Coast to 50 miles offshore of St. Augustine, Fla.

Although this part of the Atlantic Ocean is beyond states’ jurisdictional boundary of three miles, energy exploration companies still must seek state certification to determine if the proposals comply with their respective coastal management laws. If the state objects, as has North Carolina, the federal government can’t issue a permit. However, the US Department of Commerce ultimately rules on appeals and disputes.

“We remain vigilant in our opposition to activities related to oil and gas exploration off the North Carolina coast,” Secretary Michael Regan said in a prepared statement. “WesternGeco’s proposal for seismic airgun blasting poses too many risks to our commercial and recreational fishing economy, marine life and overall coastal environment and economy that our state cannot afford to take. We will use any available avenues to fight WesternGeco’s appeal.”

In March WesternGeco requested a Consistency Certification from DEQ that would have allowed the company to explore for offshore energy deposits using air guns. The state’s Division of Coastal Management rejected the application as being incomplete. NOAA overruled the state, saying the company’s application was sufficient.

Since then, several state agencies have reviewed the application and held public hearings on the coast about the proposal. DCM, the Division of Marine Fisheries and the Wildlife Resources Commission all objected to the proposal because of the likely damage to aquatic life, ecosystems and commercial and recreational fishing. DEQ also convened a scientific panel that concluded the company’s actions could not only kill fish but zooplankton, the foundation of the marine food chain.

Even though the company would be using air guns outside of North Carolina’s jurisdictional boundary, the sound and shock waves travel for miles. Fish and other aquatic life often swim farther asea and then return to the North Carolina coast, its bays and estuaries. The seismic testing could harm the sea life that makes North Carolina its home base, scientists concluded.

“We know that seismic airgun blasting is incredibly dangerous for marine life and is the first step toward offshore drilling in the Atlantic,” said Randy Sturgill, Oceana senior campaign organizer. “North Carolinians and the DEQ have spoken – seismic airgun blasting is not compatible with our coast.

“We won this fight before and we’ll win it again. We are going to do everything in our power to stop this unlawful, irreparable and needless harm.”

On July 10, WesternGeco appealed the state’s findings to US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Among several claims, the company says that DEQ failed to describe how the proposal is inconsistent with state coastal policies. In fact, North Carolina has approved of similar surveys, albeit under a different administration.

From April 22 though  June 16, 2015, when Donald van der Vaart was DEQ Secretary and Pat McCrory was governor, the state found that four other geophysical surveys were consistent with the state’s coastal management plan.

However, President Barack Obama subsequently banned drilling in the mid-Atlantic for five years, and the seismic testing did not occur.

Both McCrory and van der Vaart advocated for offshore drilling, over the objections of thousands of coastal residents and governments. (The Carteret County and Onslow County commissioners are the only two local governments that have not publicly opposed these practices.)  Coastal opposition, not only in North Carolina but up and down the Eastern Seaboard, to offshore drilling and seismic testing has strengthened, not waned since then.

The Trump administration supports offshore drilling. When Trump became president, he sought to overturn Obama’s ban in the Arctic and mid-Atlantic, but it’s been stalled by several legal challenges. Trump also recently announced rollbacks to offshore drilling safety rules.

Tricia Smith, spokeswoman for the Division of Coastal Management, said that even though offshore drilling in the mid-Atlantic is  subject to the ban, the state’s permitting process still continues.

Commerce Secretary Ross can overrule the state’s decision only for matters of national security or if the request is consistent with the goals of  federal Coastal Zone Management Act. WesternGeco, in its appeal, is arguing that “the national interests furthered by the survey outweigh any adverse coastal effects.”

Crystal Coast Waterkeeper Larry Baldwin said that after Obama’s drilling ban, some people shifted their attention to other environmental issues. “People got too comfortable,” Baldwin said. “The current [Trump] administration, they’re just going to wait it out. It’s not a dead issue.”


State to issue fish advisory after elevated levels of mercury found in Largemouth Bass caught in Sutton Lake

Largemouth Bass (Wikicommons)

Largemouth Bass caught in Sutton Lake in New Hanover County were found to have elevated levels of mercury in their tissue, according to tests conducted by state environmental officials.

The findings, verified last month, prompted the state Department of Health and Human Services to recommend that fishers at Sutton Lake adhere to the statewide mercury advisory for Largemouth Bass. That advisory recommends that women ages 15 to 44, pregnant or nursing women, and children under 15 should not eat these fish. Other people can eat up to one meal per week.  A meal is 6 ounces of uncooked fish for adults, or 2 ounces of uncooked fish for children under 15, according to DHHS.

Mercury can harm brain and neurological development in fetuses and young children, which can result in cognitive disabilities later in life. Adults with mercury poisoning can experience tingling or numbness of lips, tongue, fingers or toes, fatigue, and blurred vision.

In March DEQ sampled 11 largemouth bass, three bluegill sunfish and eight redear sunfish. All of the Largemouth Bass samples contained some amount of mercury. The average concentration was 0.13 ppm, more than two and a half times the state’s health screening level of 0.047 ppm. Detections in the bass ranged from 0.07 to o.23 ppm.

One of three bluegill tested and five of eight redear sunfish also had mercury, but at amounts below the screening level. In a letter to New Hanover County Public Health Department Director Phillip Tart, state health officials noted that because of an insufficient number of bluegill samples, they could not issue an advisory for that species at Sutton.

DHHS cautioned that concentrations could increase or decrease over time, and recommended that DEQ continue to sample the fish not only for mercury, but other contaminants, “to accurately assess the status of fish” in the lake.

The industrial sources of mercury include coal-fired power plants and incinerators. Duke Energy operated the Sutton coal-fired plant adjacent to the lake from 1954 to 2013.

There has been a statewide fish consumption advisory in effect for mercury since 2008. According to state documents, most of the elevated mercury concentrations in Largemouth Bass occur in the eastern and southeastern part of the state, within the Coastal Plain.

Fish Advisory Sutton Lake (Text)


With DEQ’s Community Mapping System, learn where polluters locate in neighborhoods of color

The proposed methyl bromide site would have added a major pollution source to the small towns of Acme and Delco. DEQ’s Community Mapping System provides data on polluting facilities, as well as demographic and health information. (Source: DEQ Community Mapping System)

Comment period on the mapping system ends Wednesday, July 10.

When Columbus County officials decided in 2018 to allow the Australian company Malec Brothers to emit 140 tons of toxic methyl bromide into the air at its log fumigation facility, they did not have the benefit of an environmental justice map.

They might not have known that the small towns of Acme and Delco, which are 50 percent communities of color, were already disproportionately burdened with several hazardous waste areas, Superfund sites and air pollution. A map, linked to several environmental and health databases, could have changed their mind.

There were no guarantees the planning board and commissioners would have consulted such a map, but the residents of Acme-Delco likely would have done so. And armed with that information, residents could have fought the facility from the get-go. As it turns out, under intense public pressure Malec Brothers decided not to use methyl bromide at its facility — but for residents of this small town, the fight, albeit successful, was time-consuming and stressful.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has released an early version of its Community Mapping System, an interactive tool that allows users to easily view and analyze environmental, racial, ethnic and health data.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan told Policy Watch that developers, city planners and businesses can use the mapping tool to determine siting; the public can use it to advocate for or against a plan — and to watchdog a project.

“These conversations should be occurring before the planning process,” Regan said, “to avoid the battle at the end of the permitting.”

The mapping tool is the result of a 2017 federal Civil Rights settlement between DEQ and neighbors of industrialized hog operations in eastern North Carolina. It expands on the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening tool with  additional layers of information, such as health statistics and air, water and waste permitting.

“We wanted to have all of the information in an aggregated fashion,” Regan said, adding that the public and government officials — long before DEQ even gets involved — can ask important questions: “Does this make sense? Is this a good idea?”

This map of East Durham, which is predominantly Black, shows the dozens of pollution sources in the area. Clicking on the small crosses brings up a community demographics box; it also contains a link to more environmental justice information. (Map: DEQ Community Mapping System)

The map website features a user guide. The legend lists icons for different types of pollution sources, including hazardous waste sites, areas contaminated with dry cleaning solvents, old and currently operating landfills, and industrialized swine, cattle and select poultry operations. Click on an icon and see a link to public documents about the site, which are kept on the DEQ website.

You can get a summary of all the polluters by type, as well as set a radius for all contamination sources within a certain distance. Click on a neighborhood on the map and you’ll see a pop-up window with demographic data, as well as health and illness statistics.


Because of data gaps, two Superfund sites are missing from the map of Aberdeen. The sites, former pesticide dumps, lie just north and south of the new elementary school. The majority of the students who will attend the school are Black, Latinx or low-income. (Map: DEQ Community Mapping System)

The system has a few shortcomings:

  • The pollution locations are derived from documents and databases that could be incomplete. Policy Watch recently reported on an elementary school under construction in Aberdeen that lies within a mile of several pollution sources, including four former pesticides dumps, which are Superfund sites. However, only the main contaminated site appears on the map, not the satellite Superfund areas where additional dumping occurred.
  • Large poultry operations that use the “dry litter” method of waste disposal are not listed. Because state law doesn’t require these facilities to have a permit, DEQ doesn’t know where they are located. (During this legislative session, Sen. Harper Peterson and other Democratic lawmakers have tried to insert language into the Farm Act to study the potential environmental and health effects of these operations. Sen. Brent Jackson put the kibosh on any such transparency. )
  • The health and income data is compiled by census tract, not census block. This is important because tracts are much larger than blocks. For example, the presence of more affluent, white neighborhoods — unlikely to be located near major polluters — could obscure the effects of the contamination on people of color who live within the same large tract. Compiling key data by small census block could give a truer picture of who lives closest to the pollution sources and how their health might be affected.

The mapping tool is useful for broadly understanding the pollution sources within a community and who lives nearby. But maps are merely representations. Nothing substitutes for “ground truth” — visiting a neighborhood, talking with residents, and seeing, smelling, and hearing what they are exposed to every day.

The comment period ends Wednesday, July 10. There are several ways to send comments: