Behind the scenes: Charlotte’s coal ash problem

Dear readers,

Here’s something for you to keep in mind as you read the news: There’s always more to the story.

Since I’m collecting coal ash stories, I’ll summarize a couple of my own regarding Charlotte, North Carolina’s coal ash issue to give you a peek behind the scenes.

I’ve been researching and writing about coal ash in relation to Duke Energy’s Riverbend coal plant for more than three years. It’s located on the shores of Mountain Island Lake, which is a small, shallow company-made lake and Charlotte’s main source of drinking water. (By the way, area citizens have been drawing water from roughly the same spot for centuries.)

Riverbend, on the other hand, is 83 years old — old for a coal plant but young compared to the Catawba River, named after the Native American Tribe of the same name.

Riverbend was built and run by a tight-knit community, the same community whose complaints about their homes being coated with black dust led to the creation of the first of the plant’s two coal ash waste ponds. The first one, which is 40 acres, was built in the mid-1950s, the second, which is 28 acres, in the late 1980s. It was an effort by the company to prevent coal soot from escaping its smoke stacks — decades before the Clean Air Act, no less.

Fast forward to Dec. 22, 2008. That’s the night of the massive coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn. Just before midnight that night, an earthen dam basically dissolved, coating hundreds of acres of land, water, residential areas, infrastructure and more beneath the black, contaminant-laden sludge.

Following the spill, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promised to begin regulating coal ash by the end of 2009. Instead, the agency released two proposed regulations, held a series of public hearings, collected nearly half a million public comments and stalled.

In the meantime, the EPA also began investigating — via third-party engineering firms — coal ash ponds and dumps around the country, leading them to create a list of “high-hazard” coal ash ponds. That means that if there is a similar disaster at one of those sites, it’s possible that human lives will be lost.

Riverbend’s two coal ash ponds were on the list, and that’s how I got involved in this story.

I was fresh out of college and beginning to expand my freelance journalism business. The Mountain Island Weekly was a regular client, and coal ash quickly became my beat.

What I discovered right away is that there wasn’t a ton of information on coal ash in the public domain, that the powers-that-be aren’t keen on chatting about it, and that the ponds were draining into Charlotte’s main drinking water reservoir. This, I thought, is what journalism was created for — lifting the proverbial veil for citizens so they can make good decisions about a community-owned resource, their drinking water.

When the EPA released their draft report after inspections were conducted at Riverbend, I noticed what I thought was a simple error: Mountain Island was listed as the nearest downstream city. As soon as I saw that, I called the agency and explained that Mountain Island is a neighborhood in Charlotte, and the name of the lake, but that it’s not a city.

After three months of getting the run around, it was explained to me that it would be too time consuming for the agency to correct it’s draft report, so, instead, it issued this memo.

That’s one of my personal coal ash stories.

Here’s another:

During my reporting, I called Dr. Avner Vengosh, from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. I believe we were discussing the upcoming EPA hearing on coal ash that was to take place in Sept. 2010 in Charlotte when he told me about his and his students’ efforts to collect sediment samples from lakes and rivers in North Carolina that were near coal ash waste ponds. I asked if they’d be sampling Mountain Island Lake when they came to town. Dr. Vengosh said he wasn’t aware of Mountain Island Lake’s importance (it supplies drinking water to nearly a million people) until our call.

Long story short, he and his students did in fact sample the lake’s sediment while they were in town for the EPA’s hearing. It’s been more than two years since that time, but the results are finally in, and they don’t sound too good. Here’s an excerpt:

In Mountain Island Lake, a primary source of drinking water for Charlotte, pore water samples collected from lake sediment during the summers of 2010 and 2011 contained up to 250 parts per billion of arsenic – roughly 25 times higher than current EPA standards for drinking water, and nearly twice the EPA standard for aquatic life.

Now, closing in on four years since the TVA disaster in Kingston, Tenn., I’m continuing to collect coal ash stories from around the country as the EPA continues to stall and the U.S. Congress tinkers with legislation that could prevent the agency from regulating the stuff at all.

If you have a coal ash story you’d like to share, please do so. You can submit photos, video and text here, or you can e-mail me.