BY ANN CARROLL The more I learn about coal ash, the angrier I get. For years, coal-fired power plants have been allowed to dump toxic material into unlined ponds Independent tests of coal ash have detected cancer-causing chemicals in these ponds like mercury, arsenic, and lead, but power companies – including North Carolina’s own Duke Power – won’t detail exactly what’s in the byproduct.
An independent assessment done by the Environmental Protection Agency found that living near a coal-ash pond is “significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.” On top of that, people living within a mile of toxic ponds have a 1 in 50 risk of getting cancer—which is more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable risk levels. Yikes.
You might ask yourself what health issues do arsenic, mercury, and lead cause. Well, here is what I discovered and it’s scary:
- Mercury poses a particular risk to children, infants, and fetuses. Impacts of exposure include nervous system damage and developmental defects like reduced IQ and mental retardation.
- Exposure to lead can result in brain swelling, kidney disease, cardiovascular problems, nervous system damage, and even death. It is accepted that there is no safe level of lead exposure, particularly for children.
- Ingestion of arsenic can lead to nervous system damage, cardiovascular issues, and urinary tract cancers. Inhalation and absorption through the skin can result in lung cancer and skin cancer, respectively.
This isn’t an isolated problem. North Carolina contains 14 unlined coal-ash ponds so chances are good that you live close to one. These ponds collectively contain millions of gallons of toxic material that is being directly exposed to our ground water. Want to know the kicker? Currently, federal law doesn’t require power companies to line the ponds with any protective barrier. By comparison, garbage dumps are required to be lined.
The EPA announced earlier this year they would release federal regulations for new coal-ash ponds by December. Though we ought to celebrate where we can, nothing has been said about existing ponds. The coal ash they contain just sits there, and at the North Carolina-Virginia border, it’s leaking into the Dan River. Duke hasn’t been able to stop the overflow since it started leaking in early February. An estimated 35 million gallons of toxins has spilled so far.
The state is finally taking notice, but so are the feds. Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed more than a dozen state employees and hundreds of pages of documents to investigate allegations of lack of regulation and oversight at coal ash ponds in the state.
Coal ash is toxic. There are 14 ponds of it around the state, trickling intoour groundwater and exposing our children to cancer-causing chemicals. We don’t get a “do-over” when it comes to our water supply. If we taint it, we will have to spend unforeseen amounts of money to convert it back to drinkable– money that will come from tax payers like us, and apparently not from the company that helped contribute to it.
If you’d like to join in the fight for clean water, Appalachian Voices has a petition, and the Sierra Club has initiated a Beyond Coal campaign, with a goal of transitioning energy production away from fossil fuels.