Coal ash neighbors say leaders focused on politics, not solutions

Published 12:10 am Saturday, June 11, 2016

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to add background information about proposals in the state legislature. 

By Josh Bergeron

DUKEVILLE — Instead of finding a permanent solution to water woes, elected leaders in North Carolina place a priority on politics when it’s time to talk about coal ash contamination, said coal ash neighbors on Friday.

Residents of Rowan’s Dukeville community won’t drink their water, regardless of whether the state has declared it unsafe to drink. About 80 well owners in the area receive free, regular deliveries of water set up by Duke Energy. A number of others, however, have been left out of the free deliveries because their houses sit outside of a predetermined testing radius.

To provide relief to those not receiving water deliveries and to give those already receiving water an additional amount, residents of the Dukeville community organized a giveaway on Friday of roughly 3,000 gallons of water. Anyone who lived within a half mile of Buck Steam Station’s coal ash ponds could show up to Bethel United Methodist Church and receive an allocation. A few dozen took advantage of the opportunity. Niagra Bottling in Mooresville provided the water and Jody Blackwelder Trucking brought it to Dukeville.

In conjunction with the giveaway, coal ash neighbors held a press conference to call for the resignation or removal of State Health Director Randall Williams.

Dukeville resident and environmental activist Deborah Graham said state officials, including Williams, have only added confusion to whether well water is safe to drink. First, state regulators said well water was unsafe to drink. About a year later, regulators told well owners the opposite and lifted the “do not drink” advisories.

From the start, Dukeville residents have desired two things: clean water and the excavation of coal ash ponds, which Graham on Friday called “nasty, dirty, toxic, cancer-filled, leaking, unlined, coal ash dumps.”

Some residents of Dukeville see the solution as rather simple. Salisbury High senior Kristophor Morgan said people responsible should just admit wrongdoing.

“If they know something is wrong and just want to keep denying it, it seems like something is wrong with them,” said Morgan, who lives in the Dukeville area and helped offload water on the eve of his high school graduation.

Duke Energy, however, has maintained that its coal ash ponds are not polluting nearby wells. The company provides water to neighbors of its coal ash ponds because “many residents may still have concerns about their water supply,” according to a statement provided to the Salisbury Post. The company hasn’t provided free water to residents who live outside of a testing radius determined by state officials.

The situation breaks down rather simply in the eyes of Bethel United Methodist Church Pastor Josh Britton — there are people whose needs aren’t being met.

“We have all this water here today and we have an opportunity as a church to hand out water to people who are literally thirsty,” Britton said. “I think it’s undeniable that there is a problem. You can call it politics. You can call it a conspiracy theory or whatever you want, but there are people here with very real needs and many of our families here at Bethel are affected directly.”

The trailer containing roughly 3,000 gallons of water sat in the parking lot of Bethel United Methodist Church. Under the hot, afternoon sun, Britton and a number of other volunteers spent an hour or so unloading the few thousand gallons. Water was stacked near the edge of Dukeville Road. Cars would file past the pile of water and receive an allocation.

For some who helped offload water on Friday, there’s been limited change despite an effort to clean up coal ash led by environmental regulators. Wayne Graham, who lives on Long Ferry Road, said coal ash cleanup has become too focused on politics rather than finding a solution. Wayne Graham said politicians in Raleigh are “crooked.” They aren’t helping find a solution, he said.

Before handing out the water, Deborah Graham organized a press conference. She and other neighbors of coal ash ponds — including Amy Brown and Debra Baker from Belmont — called for the resignation or removal of Williams from his post as state health director. It wasn’t the first time, however, that coal ash neighbors have called for Williams’ resignation.

“He has caused confusion, distrust, lack of faith, disbelief, doubt, misgivings and wariness on the citizens of this state,” Graham said, citing the decision to declare water wells safe to drink after previously saying they weren’t.

A bill that passed the state legislature would have provided municipal water to local residents, but it was vetoed by Gov. Pat McCrory for a provision that recreated a commission to oversee coal ash cleanup. The measure, numbered Senate Bill 71, would have provided 16 months to plan for installing water lines with no deadlines in place for installation, said Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Stephanie Hawco. McCrory’s administration proposes a deadline of 18 months for water installation, Hawco said.

A new bill is expected to be introduced and passed as a compromise between McCrory and state legislators.

For now, however, Dukeville is left waiting.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.