Filmmaker shares stories of people impacted by coal ash

The Broad River Greenway. Photo courtesy of GWU

By: Travis Archie

A major environmental topic that has been in the spotlight of North Carolina is coal ash. Coal ash the bi-product of coal that is burned to supply energy to power plants. On March 14, the Boiling Springs town hall had a public meeting that discussed clean-up plans regarding the coal ash deposit pond at the Cliffside power plant, seven miles from Gardner-Webb. The coal ash pond at Cliffside is categorized as low priority by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality meaning the pond must be cleaned up by Dec. 31, 2029.

On April 7, students and community members had the chance to hear stories of those who have been affected by coal ash in North Carolina in a series of videos by independent investigative journalist and filmmaker, Rhiannon Fionn.

In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was created in the U.S to regulate pollution in the country. ”Before this department began to inforce air pollution regulation, many power plants that used water to capture the small particles of metals and other left over materials to clean the smoke that was coming from the plants,” said Fionn.

Fionn is collecting coal ash stories from around the country and posting them to her blog and CoalAshChronicals.com. She began this project in July of 2009 and has covered coal ash from the effects of the Dec. 22, 2008 ash spill in Roane County, T.N. as well as the Feb. 9, 2014 Dan River ash spill in Eden N.C.

What is the Problem

When something becomes full it must be emptied, especially when it comes to waste. “There are two types of release methods for coal ash: legal discharges that are regulated though National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and then you have illegal discharges that are caused by leaks, seeps and spills,” said Fionn.

These leaks and seeps happen mostly underground by intruding into the water table that supplies water to local communities. This is due to the fact that the ponds are not lined. Since water travels the course of least resistance, this causes many home owners to change to city water opposed to well water. There are also cases in which coal ash springs have popped up from around coal ash ponds due to pressure.

Not only does this affect water quality, it also impacts the air quality. Since this waste is not covered, once it dries it becomes a powdered substance that can become airborne and just as hazardous. Fionn said, “This stuff is very corrosive, it is so bad that when I went to interview some of the people in these affected areas they told me that the paint on their house and cars were being eaten away – just imagine what it is doing to your insides.”

Coal ash contains many toxic components such as zinc, iron, sulfur and other radioactive material. People who live in the areas that have respiratory problems, birth defects, leukemia and brain tumors as stated in the video shown at the event.

Fortunately, certain grades of this material can be recycled into industrial material such as concrete and asphalt. Utah’s interstates are made from coal ash, as well as N.C. bridges and the Ronald Reagan building in D.C.. Since these items are coated, they do not cause any immediate danger to the environment and save tax payers money because the material does not have to be replaced due to its durability.

How this Affects GWU

The Cliffside power plant is only seven miles west of GWU with a Coal Ash pond that is on part of the Broad River. Cliffside has begun plans to clean up their ash ponds but this is not enough according to David Caldwell, Broad River Alliance coordinator.

“Inactive Basin 1-4 is being removed by Duke with 423,000 tons of coal ash – while the two remaining ponds contain 18 times as much,” said Caldwell.  The Active Basin contains 306 million gallons of water with 5.4 million tons of ash.

“Duke is currently discharging ten million gallons of treated coal ash into the Broad River everyday but there is also untreated coal ash water that is making its way into the river because there is seeping from the ponds underground,“ said Caldwell.

He also said that even though the community does not receive its water from the Greenway branch of the Broad River, it is still important because if a drought occurs and lowers the First Broad River, where the city gets it water from, the Greenway is the community’s back up.

Surprisingly there was a very low turnout for this meeting, especially considering this topic impacts everyone who lives here with the Broad River Greenway being such a popular destination during warm weather.

“[Discussing] coal ash is the broccoli of news – we need it, it’s good for us, but we don’t want to eat it every day,” said Fionn. Effective solutions with immediate action are needed and these can only come about from discussing and bringing light to the issues coal ash ponds are causing.

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