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Amy Adams, NC Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, holds sediment covered in fine, gray coal ash upstream of the drinking water intake in Danville, VA, approximately 20 miles downstream of the Dan River ash spill (Photo: Eric Chance / Appalachian Voices)

A Little-Known Toxic Threat 'Underfoot' in North Carolina

Coal ash used as landfill is a 'silent, lurking issue that’s not getting any attention'

Jacob Chamberlain

North Carolina residents do not know the extent of a toxic mess that has been buried under their feet in dozens of locations around the state.

Coal ash, the murky and toxic waste created by the coal industry, made headlines in February when a containment pond spilled into North Carolina's Dan River, contaminating waterways at untold levels and putting a national spotlight on the issue of coal ash ponds and the extreme lack of regulation over coal ash disposal.

However, as the Charlotte Observer reported Sunday, the problems with this toxic waste go even deeper.

Buried underground in dozens of sites across North Carolina are massive amounts of coal ash that have been used as fill to level ground and fill gullies—over which roads, parking lots and buildings have been built.

"State standards are so minimal that even property owners, much less their neighbors, might not know what’s underfoot," reports the Charlotte Observer. "And while ash has a known ability to contaminate groundwater, fill sites are rarely tested."

Those underground troves have been largely unregulated over the years. However, like the coal ash ponds that are used to store the waste, these fill sites do not use liners to keep the coal ash from mixing with soil and groundwater.

The Charlotte Observer reports:

At least 1.8 million cubic yards of dry ash are buried in nearly two dozen places around Charlotte, not counting power plants. That’s enough to cover 1,100 acres a foot deep in ash.

An unknown amount of wet ash, removed from ponds and regulated separately, was also used as fill material. The state can’t locate records before 2011 that would show where or how large those sites are.

There are likely to be at least 77 fill sites across the state.

At one fill site, nearby groundwater has shown high levels of barium, arsenic and lead for the past six years, for which the site's owner has only been fined $4,000. A similar case arose at a site in Northampton County, in which the owner was fined $13,875.

In 2009, during one of the most recent rounds of state inspections, regulators found 15 fill sites breaking rules, with six locations flouting regulations meant to keep the ash from reaching water.

"There’s absolutely no oversight of these structural fills and that seems problematic,” Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who has pushed legislation to tighten ash rules since 2009, told the Charlotte Observer. “It’s sort of a silent, lurking issue that’s not getting any attention.”

Since February's massive spill into the Dan River, critics have pointed to the state's extreme lack of regulation over the coal industry, including energy giants such as Duke Energy.

Residents and environmental groups say the Dan River spill is just the latest incident in the company's long history of pollution.

Dennis Lemly, a research biologist with Wake Forest University and the U.S. Forest Services told the Charlotte Observer that ash fill sites, though historically receiving even less attention, pose the same hazards as ash ponds.

Last week, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory—who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years—released a “Comprehensive Coal Ash Action Plan” he claims would “close loopholes in state law to strengthen the state’s ability to regulate coal ash ponds.”

However, environmental groups were quick to point out that the legislation "categorically fails to live up to the hype and meaningfully protect North Carolinians from poisoned drinking water as well as another tragic and toxic coal ash spill."

"CCAAP would allow Duke Energy to continue poisoning North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia drinking water sources with a witch’s brew of toxic heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium because it allows Duke Energy to cover up coal ash ponds with dirt and leave them unattended and unmonitored on the banks of nearby rivers and lakes," a press release from the groups states. "The bill is a tremendous waste of time when people and the environment are threatened throughout the state. NC citizens desperately need real solutions – not a papering over of the problem."

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