coal ash contamination

Coal Ash Wednesday: Federal court looking at CWA violations

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The process known as "capping in place" is on trial:

In the first federal Clean Water Act trial focusing on coal ash leaks, Judge James Gibney Jr. heard four days of arguments against Dominion Virginia Power, last month, about the risks ash pits in Virginia currently pose to ground and surface waters, such as the Elizabeth River. On June 24, he said he would rule after reviewing briefs from both sides.

During the June trial, one expert testified that the 3 million tons of coal ash at the Chesapeake Energy Center site contains 150 tons of arsenic, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented environmentalists, scientists, and experts testifying on behalf of the Sierra Club in the trial.

Reading the tea leaves on this case, I hold out little hope for a responsible decision. It appears the Judge is skeptical, and has bought into the industry's, "If you want us to clean up our mess, it will cost you" threat-cloaked-as-a-warning posture. The fact such economic blackmail is accepted as sound legal reasoning instead of the strong-arm coercion it is, simply boggles the mind. But that can't survive a thorough appellate review:

Dukeville residents riding see-saw of drinking water advisories

When Hexavalent Chromium is your nosiest neighbor:

Originally, state health officials used a level of 0.07 parts per billion as the health screening level for hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing heavy metal. That health screening level turned up dozens of unsafe water wells in Dukeville. Later, the state sharply raised the screening level to 10 parts per billion. However, state regulators in March told coal ash neighbors with hexavalent chromium levels higher than 10 parts per billion that their well water was OK to drink.

It doesn't get much more negligent than that: Raise the threshold almost 150 times higher, then ignore your own new level. These people need help right now, and forcing them to wait for a year is beyond irresponsible:

NCDP files records request on contaminated water advisories

There's no room for conflicts of interest where public health is concerned:

Democratic Party chairwoman Patsy Keever announced the records request at a news conference at party headquarters in Raleigh. “Sworn testimony suggests the governor’s press staff pressured state water experts to lift ‘do not drink’ orders for families living near coal ash ponds,” she said.

Asked if Ellis’ request wasn’t just an effort to provide well owners with additional, reassuring information, Keever said the records could disclose his motive. “We need to look into who is making those decisions and why,” Keever said.

No doubt McCrory's propaganda machine will try to write this off as election-year politics, but this is an important move on NCDP's part. We really do need to find out how this decision percolated through the system, and just how involved Duke Energy was (allowed to be). But also, the voters need to be sent a clear message that Democrats really do care about the environment and public health, and that they don't have to rely solely on non-profits for the protection of such.

Coal Ash Wednesday: More lawsuits on the way

Playing the game of risk:

Spokespeople from basin owner Duke Energy and the Southern Environmental Law Center talked with Carolina Public Press earlier this month about their desired outcomes. Both indicated an expectation that their employers would consider legal action if DEQ doesn’t give them what they want. Since what each side wants is the opposite of what the other side seeks, litigation seems unavoidable.

DEQ's haphazard approach to coal ash regulation

Their method for assessing risk creates a high risk for our state:

Coal ash pits at Duke’s 14 power plants have already contaminated groundwater, and just last Friday (March 4), DEQ issued notices of violation to Duke for allowing coal ash wastewater to leak from its pits at 12 power plants across the state. Unfortunately, NC’s Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA), which creates requirements and timelines for the closure of coal ash pits, allows Duke to put a cap on pits that receive a “low-risk” rating. Duke could leave coal ash where it is, threatening groundwater, presumably forever.

DEQ failed to determine draft ratings for ash pits at six of Duke’s facilities by its December 31, 2015 deadline: Rogers (formerly Cliffside), Roxboro, Allen, Buck, Belews Creek, and Marshall. Instead, the agency rated coal ash pits at these sites as “low-to-intermediate.” Coal ash pits at these sites will eventually receive a rating of either “low” or “intermediate” risk. DEQ says that public comments will influence its decisions, and that even ratings of “intermediate” and “low” risk are subject to change based on public input.

Okay, I'm glad to see DEQ's interest in public feedback. That being said, classifying the risk levels of coal ash ponds based on subjectivity (the number of people who show up and their personal opinions) is just one more deviation from scientific analysis. And it provides the cover for DEQ to conclude whatever the hell they feel like. Nearly all of these sites in question just got spanked for leaking, so the question of risk has already been answered by DWQ:

Coal Ash Wednesday: That's not a leak anymore, it's a permitted discharge

I'll see your lawsuit and raise you a government-issued permit:

The new permit lets Duke Energy not only drain the water from above stored coal ash at the Riverbend Plant on the Catawba River, but also “the water content in the settled ash” of its two pond bottoms, said Mike Rusher of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

DEQ will use the Riverbend permit as a “template” for similar permits that Duke Energy needs to close storage ponds at the retired Dan River plant near Eden and other sites statewide, Rusher said. “It’s the template in that it is the first of its kind to address the dewatering process and to incorporate seeps,” he said.

Bolding mine. Get that? Not only are seeps going to be considered as "authorized discharges" at Riverbend, but also all other coal ash ponds going through this process. A process that won't be completed until 2030, or even later if Duke Energy can get permission to delay their work. I realize some environmentalists are glad to see this, because it represents an acknowledgment by both Duke Energy and DEQ that these leaks are actually occurring. But it also legitimizes those leaks, and will likely shield Duke from further lawsuits related to this form of contamination.

Coal Ash Wednesday: The amazing disappearing fines

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$18 million gone, unlike the Dan River coal ash, which is still there:

"This was a pennies-on-the-dollar settlement," Longest says. "And it raises serious concerns about whether [DEQ] is trying to protect the environment of North Carolina or trying to protect Duke from further litigation."

DEQ isn't saying much about the settlement, which also orders Duke to "accelerate" cleanup at four of its most faulty lagoons, in Asheville, Wilmington, Goldsboro and Belews Creek. Through a representative, DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart declined an interview request, directing the INDY instead to the agency's press statement.

Oh no, van der Vaart isn't going to answer any pesky questions, but he will take to the Op-Ed pages and pen a self-righteous rebuttal to any bad press he might receive. As far as that "protecting Duke from further litigation," if it looks and swims and quacks like a corporate duck, well. You know the rest. I was going to add something about how corporate ducks are prone to vicious attacks if you don't throw the bread fragments to them quickly enough, but that would be carrying the duck reference a little too far, so I'll leave that alone.

Coal Ash Wednesday: DEQ rolls over for $7 million

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They might as well join Duke Energy's legal team:

The company is settling a fine from earlier this year for $7 million. The amount is short of what the state originally wanted, and it looks like Duke could get a lot more out of the agreement in the future. “And under the terms of that agreement, duke energy will pay $7 million and resolve all of the groundwater issues past, present and future at all 14 of our coal plants,” said Sheehan.

“It's one of those situations where if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention,” said Southern Environment Law Center Senior Attorney Frank Holleman.

Let's see, originally it was $25 million for just one plant, and now it's $7 million for the whole shebang. Yep, I'd say "outrageous" is not an overstatement. DEQ is either horrifically inept, or they're simply playing a part in a Kabuki theatre, like we've been speculating about since they first began to insinuate themselves into lawsuits against Duke Energy.

No respite for weary environmental advocates

A real shift in public opinion or wishful thinking?

In recent elections, North Carolina voters have teetered between red and blue. But the only green in the mix was the color of money, not environmental concern - or even basic awareness.

This state has the gift of a magnificent natural environment, but most voters take it for granted, seldom worrying about issues like water or air quality. That may be changing. Environmental issues have become serious political issues, especially in the past year.

The operative word there is "may" be changing, but I believe even that is a reach. Yes, there have been some high-profile environmental problems that surfaced (or leaked just below the surface) in the past year and a half, but it doesn't automatically follow that a larger chunk of the public has become concerned. I've watched these numbers since 2007, and the percentage of people who list the environment as their top issue has remained around 3 percent, just like in this Gallup poll covering 2015. Yes, that's a national poll and not targeted on NC voters, but it is hard numbers vs speculation of what should happen:

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