A recent settlement between Duke Energy and the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) may finally put an end to the threat of coal ash, which has been menacing our waterways for years. The agreement requires the company to move about 80 million tons of ash from its current housing in designated landfills and ponds to lined containment, most of which will be on-site.
These steps are designed to reduce the likelihood of contamination. Adding a liner to the new landfills will prevent leaching of toxins from the ash into the groundwater. The measures diminish the chance for ash to spill into rivers, as in 2014 when a flood caused a massive spill in the Dan River, leading to a protracted legal fight, a fine and greater concern over the management of coal ash in the state.
This settlement, which has seen praise from both Duke Energy and the DEQ, would not have come about without an order in early 2019 to clean up the coal ash. Following this order, it took nearly a year of litigation to arrive at the current agreement.
All this effort needed strong support from the government and a great deal of background research to sustain, underlying the need for voices in power willing to pursue difficult fights and fund the research to back them up. Students and faculty at NC State are key in these contexts for contributing research on water quality as well as pushing leaders to address these issues, which are central to the state’s environmental and public health.
Coal ash is the ash left over after coal is burned — fairly straightforward. What’s especially dangerous is that while coal is mostly carbon, once that carbon is burned off to generate energy and CO2, the leftover ash can contain high concentrations of elements like mercury and arsenic, which are toxic.
These elements are most dangerous when they get into water systems, which host many forms of life and also feed drinking water reservoirs, and which can spread these contaminants away from their sources. Local groundwater systems have most likely already been contaminated by the reserves, as discussed by Duke Professor Avner Vengosh on WUNC, and many of these systems are connected to wells people use for drinking.
At present, there isn’t evidence that groundwater under coal ash storage — which is known to be contaminated — has impacted the broader groundwater supply, but more research needs to be conducted into how the state’s groundwater sources interact to rule out any danger. The current settlement takes the cautious approach and prevents any further contamination by lining ash storage basins. However, careful monitoring needs to continue to ensure the existing groundwater contamination doesn’t spread. Institutions like NC State should devote resources to monitoring this and other water quality issues.
Another speaker on the WUNC program, journalist Frank Taylor, pointed out that the DEQ, which is in charge of enforcing the cleanup, tends to follow the political winds when it comes to how rigidly it pursues environmental regulation. During the tenure of former governor and Duke Energy executive Pat McCrory, the DEQ was much more lax in its enforcement of the rules.
This spells the need for students concerned about the environment to participate in upcoming elections to keep pro-environment forces in charge of the DEQ. It also means that third parties like NC State can take the initiative and supply research on the cleanup and other side effects of coal power, providing continuity amid a turbulent political climate and hopefully helping to finally lay the issue to rest.