Coal ash disposal threatens WNC environmental health

by Emily Kendrick – Staff Writer – ekendric@unca.edu

Sandra Diaz grew up in a large family and had a difficult time making her voice heard. Now she works with Appalachian Voices, helping others find their voice when it comes to environmental issues like coal ash disposal.

As the North Carolina campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices, Diaz focuses on protecting the Appalachian region’s air, land and water. The nonprofit group specifically centers on reducing the negative effects of coal combustion, a large source of energy in the Appalachian region.

The French Broad River is one of the waterways that runs through Asheville and neighboring Tennessee. Photo by Ricky Emmons.

“We believe that when you look at the whole lifecycle of coal from mining to waste disposal, it is the single largest environmental issue facing the region,” Diaz said. “Eventually we’d like to see us not relying so much on coal for electricity.”

A coal ash holding dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., broke on Dec. 22, 2008, causing one of the worst industrial waste spills in U.S. history and bringing the issue of coal ash disposal to national attention, according to Diaz.

“When the TVA spill happened (the EPA) kind of reassessed the situation with coal ash and the regulations around that. It hasn’t really changed much in over 20 years,” Diaz said. “The EPA set out to do a rule-making, which they committed to finalizing at the end of 2010, and we are here in 2013 without those new rules.”

Coal ash, a product of burning coal to fuel power plants, contains chemicals like arsenic and mercury. These chemicals can be harmful in higher concentrations, Diaz said. After the coal ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant, the EPA sampled the water and found elevated levels of arsenic in surface water.

North Carolina ranks ninth in the country in coal ash production at more than 5.5 million tons per year, according to Earthjustice, another environmental nonprofit organization that pushes for stricter regulations on coal ash disposal.

Chemicals from industrial waste often seep into groundwater, Diaz said, but water treatment plants have tests and processes to make sure water does not get to residential homes. She said her worries lean more toward environmental destruction.

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources closely monitors water treatment laboratories, making sure the water consistently meets standards, according to Brenna Cook, a laboratory supervisor at the North Fork treatment plant in Asheville. Their technology, although not sophisticated, accurately tests for levels of many different harmful chemicals, Cook said.

“We do have to monitor our entry points – the water leaving the plants every year – for inorganic materials, and we never have a hit on any metals like arsenic,” Cook said.

North Carolina has 37 coal ash holding ponds or landfills from 14 coal-fired plants. Of those holding ponds, the EPA considers 29 of them to be high hazard. High hazard means a dam failure like the one in Roane County, Tenn., in 2008 and would most likely cause death and economic and environmental damage or loss, according to the EPA. Buncombe County’s Progress Energy Lake Julian Plant operates two of those high hazard ponds.

“The pollutants coming from the smokestacks (at the Lake Julian plant) are not as high as they used to be, but matter is neither created nor destroyed so the pollution has to go somewhere, and more of the pollution is going into these ponds,” Diaz said.

State regulations impact residential trash disposal more than industrial waste disposal, according to Diaz. Many of the regulations for coal combustion are outdated and do not adequately protect the environment, she said.

“Basically, the apple core you throw in your trashcan has more regulation around it than the coal ash, which contains a host of toxic heavy metals just sitting there by the river, so that’s something we would obviously like to see change,” Diaz said.

Although a coal ash holding pond failure in Buncombe County could be deadly, Gary Higgins, the director of the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District, said coal ash causes less water pollution than sediment and soil erosion.

“The pollutant we deal with mainly is sediment, which is the largest pollutant in North Carolina rivers and streams, by volume and probably by impact as well,” Higgins said. “With those soil particles you have a variety of pesticides and fertilizers that get in the stream.”

Higgins, a Buncombe County native, said the state regulates industrial waste more than it does soil erosion and farmland waste. The Soil and Water Conservation District mostly deals with agricultural issues such as soil erosion and run-off from farmlands. They implement best management practices to protect land and water through voluntary, incentive-based programs.

With the work of Appalachian Voices and other nonprofit environmental organizations, Diaz said people will hopefully learn how to navigate the political systems despite the opposition from coal-fired plants.

“That feeling of helplessness is a pretty big motivator for people to get involved in the issues,” Diaz said. “If we don’t have clean air and water, then the other issues really don’t matter.”

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