The summer of 2019 is poised to be a hot one in Raleigh; we’ve already seen a few highs in the upper 90s, and it’s still technically spring. These hot days remind us of the importance of water to our daily lives, whether we’re swimming in a pool or lake to cool off or drinking water to fend off dehydration.
Unfortunately, our ability to enjoy these simple luxuries is under threat due to pollution from a variety of sources, including coal ash and agricultural runoff. This issue isn’t helped by the fact that the state budget currently doesn’t allocate much money to funding environmental quality research through the N.C. Policy Collaboratory based at UNC-Chapel Hill or the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Budget negotiators need to remedy this problem by funding more research and more resources for communities impacted by water quality issues.
Several headlines have emerged in the past few years about threats to the state’s water, so it’s helpful to look back on a few key issues which have yet to be resolved and explain what risks they present to the public.
Duke Energy is the largest power utility in North Carolina, providing power to 3.4 million customers across the state. A substantial portion of the state’s power mix is generated by burning coal, with Duke Energy operating seven coal plants in the state. In addition to its high CO2 emissions, burning coal also leaves behind large quantities of coal ash, which is rich in toxic heavy metals. Thus, many water quality experts were concerned when in 2014, a large coal ash pond started leaking millions of gallons of ash water into the Dan River.
Since then, North Carolina and Duke Energy have been involved in several legal disputes over the proper disposal of coal ash, ultimately leading to the company paying fines and taking steps to reduce the danger posed by coal ash ponds. As coal energy production falls across the country due to relatively high costs compared to natural gas and renewables, coal ash production should also subside. However, more research is needed into how to properly contain the ash we already have and clean up ecosystems impacted by spills in order to prevent lead, arsenic and other toxins from harming wildlife and human health.
North Carolina is well-known for its pork industry, with over 2,000 hog farms around the state. The U.S. Geological Survey found that animal waste generated by this industry has likely contributed to increased nitrogen compound levels in several watersheds. This process has been accelerated in some cases, such as during Hurricane Florence, when flooding caused spills of hog waste from storage lagoons into waterways.
These compounds, like ammonia and nitrates, are mostly problematic for spurring algae blooms, which can choke off sunlight and oxygen to lakes, killing off plant and animal life. Nitrates are also hazardous for the health of infants if they end up in drinking water. As NPR noted in its coverage of spills after Hurricane Florence, the bacteria present in hog waste can pose an entirely separate health issue, especially during heavy floods, where the waste can inundate populated areas.
Both coal ash and hog waste spills will become more of a problem as climate change leads to heavier rains and stronger hurricanes. As such, it’s important that we continue to fund research about how to deal with these increased risks at every stage, including spill prevention, water quality monitoring and environmental cleanups.
We must also ensure that vulnerable communities have the monetary resources to protect their water quality. To that end, it’s imperative that legislators in Raleigh consider water quality in their final round of budget negotiations. Clean water is essential for people to live a healthy, productive life, but it won’t happen without concerted efforts to prevent water pollution from every source.