The coal ash regulation myth

In the past few months I’ve had many conversations with people in the Mountain Island Lake community about coal ash. And I’ve noticed a common theme. I frequently get the response: “Well, the ponds are heavily regulated,” or “Those ash ponds are regulated by the Federal Government.” When questioned further it’s clear the folks are making these comments based on an assumption, not facts. But it’s a logical assumption. One I made myself until I started doing some research. Something as toxic as coal ash must be regulated by the highest levels of government, right? No, sadly, WRONG. There are no federal regulations for coal ash. Let me say it again a different way. Coal ash is NOT federally regulated. I know. It’s hard to believe. It’s only since the devastating coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 that the EPA decided to weigh in on coal ash. And here we are in 2012 and the EPA has yet to make a decision on whether or not to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. So nearly four years after the Kingston spill of 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry into the Emory and Clinch Rivers covered more than 300 acres of adjacent land and caused residents to have to permanently abandon their homes, we still have no federal coal ash regulations.  Why the hold up? You guessed it: politics.

Coal ash spill in Kingston, TN 12/08

On July 20, Rick Gaskins, Catawba Riverkeeper, spoke to our group at Cook’s Memorial Presbyterian Church. Rick is a Harvard-educated attorney with an engineering degree from Duke University and is one of the most knowledgeable people in North Carolina on coal-fired power plants and their impact on the environment and public health. Rick had some enlightening things to tell our group on that Thursday night. Here are a few of the highlights (or should I say lowlights?):

• The garbage currently filling your kitchen trashcan is more regulated than the coal ash in the two Riverbend ponds.

• Coal ash ponds have a higher rate of failure than offshore drilling wells.

• The earthen dams between the coal ash ponds and Mountain Island Lake are largely exempt from dam safety regulations.

• Power plants use more water for cooling than is in the entire river.

• There are no legal requirements for Duke Energy to clean up the ash ponds on Mountain Island Lake after Riverbend closes.

This is why I decided to start this group and take action to make sure that Duke Energy does the right thing with Riverbend and the coal ash ponds. When I asked Tom Williams, spokesman for Duke Energy recently what will be done with the ash ponds on Mountain Island Lake after Riverbend is closed, his nonchalant response was, “We’ll probably just plant trees on top of them — that’s what we usually do.” Seriously? Suddenly my mind flash forwards 20 years to an image  of children playing in those now tall trees, or a Boy Scout group camping there having no clue about the toxins lurking in the soil under them.

Since there are no legal requirements for Duke Energy to do anything with the ponds, it’s up to us to demand that our water and community are protected and that the ponds are cleaned up properly — and that doesn’t mean planting trees on top of them. It means either digging out the ponds and moving the ash to dry landfills or installing liners and capping the ponds. The bottom line is this: it’s up to us to hold Duke accountable for cleaning up the coal ash ponds because no one else is going to. We all do our part to protect the lake. They should too.

Want to get involved? Email me at

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