Coal ash is an especially bad and dangerous
byproduct of our dependence on coal and fossil
Now over the years, a number of communities
have dealt with coal ash spills that have
turned into emergencies with real public health
concerns over what’s seeped into the water.
In some places, utilities have been pushed
to adopt tougher standards.
But as Miles O’Brien reports, some residents
and activists say the power companies are
fighting changes that could help protect public
It’s part of our regular segment on the “Leading
Edge” of science and technology.
MILES O’BRIEN, PBS NEWSHOUR CORRESPONDENT:
This is the well water?
LAURA TENCH, BELMONT RESIDENT: This is the
MILES O’BRIEN: This is 2015.
At the kitchen table in her home of 41 years
near Charlotte, Laura Tench showed me the
official notice that rocked her world in 2015.
The North Carolina Division of Public Health
recommends that your well water not be used
for drinking and cooking.
What’s it like when you got a notice like
LAURA TENCH: Scary.
You don’t want to turn on the spigot.
MILES O’BRIEN: Her well water was more
like a witches’ brew– among the frightening
ingredients: cancer causers, hexavalent chromium,
ten times the state safety threshold, and
vanadium, almost 30 times the standard.
She and her family had no choice, forced to
rely solely on bottled water for nearly three
LAURA TENCH: I would not allow my children
to take a tub bath.
They had to take a quick shower, no luxury.
MILES O’BRIEN: They didn’t have to look
far to find the suspected source of the contamination:
the 62-year-old Allen Steam Station coal fired
It sits right next to the neighborhood, and
right in the middle of a raging national debate
over what to do about the toxic remnants left
behind after the coal is burned.
What’s leftover is ash, and in addition to
hexavalent chromium, it contains arsenic,
mercury, thallium, selenium, lead and more.
There are 16 million tons of coal ash here
Duke Energy spokesperson Erin Culbert gave
me a tour.
What are we seeing here?
What’s all around us?
ERIN CULBERT, DUKE ENERGY: Well, really
as far as the eye can see in all these directions,
we’re looking at coal ash.
MILES O’BRIEN: The ash Duke Energy creates
today is either used to make concrete and
wallboard or kept dry and stored in lined
But for decades, Duke and other utilities
mixed the ash with water and sent a steady
stream of the toxic mix, into deep unlined
pits, with no barrier between the ash and
In all, Duke owns 23 coal fired plants in
five states, 14 in North Carolina, where they
store about 153 million tons of coal ash,
101 million tons of it sitting in 23 unlined
ERIN CULBERT: This was certainly decades
before the U.S. EPA was in place and before
today’s regulations that would require those
So, most of the ash basins that we operate
were constructed at the time when liners weren’t
MILES O’BRIEN: Each year, U.S. utilities
generate 100 million tons of coal ash, one
of the largest industrial waste streams in
LAURA TENCH: It took me a long time to get
over the anger of it that Duke knew this and
they didn’t do anything they were supposed
They were supposed to be responsible.
MILES O’BRIEN: Given the unknowns about
cancer and the latency between exposure and
symptoms, it is all but impossible to conclusively
connect the toxins to a particular illness
in one individual.
But Laura Tench is surrounded by cancer.
She lost her husband Jack to the disease last
year, and many of her neighbors have similar
LAURA TENCH: They call the street in front
of me, “cancer street”.
John died first and he is gone.
My husband died from cancer.
Mary Ann next door died from cancer.
You can’t tell me that these people, just
because they’re past 50, it’s normal for them
get cancer and die.
And there’s too many people, they’re dying
on my little street.
They’re killing us.
ERIN CULBERT: Duke Energy responded with
the highest level of caution.
We offered to provide bottled water for those
folks while we were continuing to do more
MILES O’BRIEN: Coal ash and its consequences
burst into public consciousness in 2008, when
an earthen dam at a power plant in Kingston,
Tennessee, collapsed, sending more than a
billion gallons of ash-tainted water into
This caught Attorney Frank Holleman’s attention.
FRANK HOLLEMAN III, SOUTHERN ENVIRONMENTAL
LAW CENTER: We’re using 21st century technology
to take pollutants out of the smoke stack,
and then we’re using 14th century technology
to dispose of the ash and the pollutants we
pull out of the smoke stack.
It’s the most dangerous, and the most primitive
way you could store this toxic industrial
MILES O’BRIEN: So, Holleman, the Southern
Environmental Law Center and local activists
began a decade long battle to end the reckless
They started suing utilities to compel them
to store the coal ash in a safer manner.
It was a David versus Goliath struggle.
Duke Energy, which towers over the Charlotte
skyline, is one of the largest electric utilities
in the U.S., a monopoly with more than $24
billion in revenue.
MILES O’BRIEN: And yet the plaintiffs
won, again and again, repeatedly forcing utilities
to dispose of coal ash in dry, lined landfills
in Virginia and South Carolina, as well as
FRANK HOLLEMAN: Ultimately, the Duke Energy
operating companies in the state pleaded guilty
18 times to Clean Water Act crimes and remained
on criminal probation today.
MILES O’BRIEN: In North Carolina, the
tide turned fully against unlined coal ash
pits in 2014.
That’s when a broken pipe at a duke energy
power plant caused a huge coal ash spill into
the Dan River.
It prompted the first state law regulating
coal ash storage later that year.
Virginia and Illinois followed, and so did
the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the Trump EPA has loosened the rules and
extended the deadlines.
Then in September 2018, high water generated
by Hurricane Florence caused a coal ash spill
at Sutton Lake near Wilmington, North Carolina.
In April, state regulators upped the ante,
telling Duke that all the remaining unlined
basins must be excavated and moved to dry
The state has asked you to do it?
ERIN CULBERT: They have.
MILES O’BRIEN: And you’re appealing?
ERIN CULBERT: We respectfully disagree with
We believe that a one-size-fits-all is the
MILES O’BRIEN: Duke agreed to excavate
22 unlined pits and move the ash to dry, lined
But the company is refusing to do the same
at nine others, including here at Allen.
Instead, the company wants to drain the water
and cover the ash with soil and a liner, capped
ERIN CULBERT: Some of the common denominators
around the sites that we propose capping would
involve sites that are not at risk of flooding
from the adjacent water body.
In all of these circumstances, the water flow
is going away from neighbors and would not
have the future opportunity to impact their
drinking water wells.
MILES O’BRIEN: On our tour of Allen, Culbert
showed how the company reached that conclusion.
To be sure, the coal ash is not migrating,
there are 200 ground water monitoring sites
around the plant, and routine testing on the
But tracing toxins from coal ash is a complex
task, as many of them, including hexavalent
chromium, occur naturally.
At Duke University, geochemist and coal ash
expert Avner Vengosh has developed a test
that measures not one chemical, but an array
of them, in samples to identify if it comes
from coal ash or not.
The whole mixture is akin to a chemical fingerprint.
AVNER VENGOSH, DUKE UNIVERSITY: It’s not
black and white.
We do see evidence for contamination in shallow
groundwater, but we have not seen the arrival
of those of contaminants into drinking water
It could come anytime.
It still may be happening in some places,
MILES O’BRIEN: Despite the ambiguity,
Vengosh says coal ash needs to be treated
as hazardous waste.
AVNER VENGOSH: We should treat it in the
way we actually manage hazardous waste in
We put it in a system that is isolated and
there are technical solutions to do so.
It’s only a matter of, first, awareness and
MILES O’BRIEN: The multi layered liners
and the excavation of the coal ash are expensive.
At the Allen site, Duke Energy estimates it
would take in excess of half a billion dollars
and two decades to do the job.
Capping in place is a lot cheaper and faster,
$185 million, and less than nine years.
ERIN CULBERT: If we have to excavate all
of these ash basins, that takes a lot of money,
billions of dollars away from cleaner investments
in renewables and other types of technologies.
FRANK HOLLEMAN: We know the solution.
It’s a shame that people were ever exposed
to these risks but it’s a shame if we don’t
stop these risks as soon as we reasonably
MILES O’BRIEN: Laura Tench and her neighbors
are now attached to the municipal water supply.
But that does not change their view of Duke
At this point, you want Duke to do the right
What is the right thing?
LAURA TENCH: They have to have these things
We have been told to take care of the environment
and we’re not doing it.
Everyone is responsible not only Duke but
we’re responsible to make sure that it’s being
taken care of.
We need to stop using coal.
It’s the bottom line.
MILES O’BRIEN: She is practicing what
she preaches — installing solar panels on
her roof not long after our visit.
She looks forward to using clean power, and
sending less money to Duke.
For the “PBS NewsHour”, I’m Miles O’Brien
in Belmont, North Carolina.