Regardless of who you are or where you live, clean drinking water is a necessary component of everyday life. Consequently, in 2010 the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 64/292, “explicitly recogniz[ing] the human right to water and sanitation”, claiming both are “essential to the realization of all human rights.” However, many people, both domestically and internationally, still do not have access to clean drinking water, even in our own backyard. Water insecurity can result from a variety of factors, but for one North Carolina town, the cause was very clear.
In Belmont, NC—just two and a half hours outside of Durham—residents have faced the uncomfortable reality of drinking water insecurity for the past five years. Not only is their water undrinkable, but it is not safe for cooking. How many bottles of water do you think it would take to fix a full Thanksgiving dinner? Amy Brown of Belmont can answer that question: she used 38 bottles to prepare her family’s Thanksgiving in 2016.
Eighteen months prior, in April 2015, households throughout North Carolina (including Amy Brown’s) received notice that their water was no longer safe for drinking or cooking. The commonality between these homes? They all are situated near coal-fired Duke Energy power plants with unlined coal ash pits. 118 of the tested water wells are near Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Station, a five-unit coal-fired power plant in Belmont, NC, about 20 minutes outside of Charlotte.2 In addition to being unlined, Allen Steam Station’s coal ash pits are on the banks of Lake Wylie, a regional water source.2
Coal ash is a mixture of by-products from the process of burning coal and includes several different kinds of particulate matter, as well as heavy metals and carcinogenic elements. Even scrubbers, which have a net positive environmental impact, contribute residues to coal ash. If eaten, drunk, or inhaled, coal ash can cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive issues, and nervous system and organ damage.
Coal ash is most often disposed of in surface impoundments or landfills but sometimes is discharged directly into nearby waterways. This is a high-risk practice, as floods and heavy rains can cause coal ash overflowing and spillage. Without lining, the pits are particularly vulnerable to leaking and contaminating groundwater. In fact, a 2015 EPA ruling on coal combustion residuals required all unlined coal ash pits to be closed by April 2019. However, November 2019 revisions extended the deadline to August 2020 and allowing companies to retrofit their pits, rather than outright closing them.
In March 2019, the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-partisan environmental watchdog organization, released a report indicating that 91% of American coal ash sites contaminate ground water. They rated Belmont’s coal ash-related water pollution the second worst in the entire country, leaching nine contaminants into the groundwater, several of which exceed the EPA’s safe levels. Most notably, the groundwater contained 532 times the limit for cobalt, 12 times the limit for lithium, and seven times the limit for selenium. In the short-term, drinking this water could cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, and irritation of the nose and throat; long-term risks include liver and kidney damage, as well as cardiac arrythmia and several types of cancers.
At the end of January, Duke Energy reached a settlement with the state of North Carolina, as well as several community groups, requiring the company to excavate close to 80 million tons of coal ash, including the pits at Allen Steam Station. However, this is only the beginning—the process will take the next 15 years, with a projected conclusion in 2035.10 Duke Energy has committed to closing all of their remaining North Carolina coal ash basins, also with a projected end date of 2035. They have yet to release a plan for their coal ash basins in Indiana or South Carolina.
Simply excavating the coal ash pits is not a sufficient solution for the long-term; it’s a Band-Aid over a bullet wound. To prevent other watersheds and communities from the troubles that coal ash posed on North Carolina, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy must take a serious look at the future of coal power plants. A great first step would be revisiting the revised EPA rules on coal combustion residuals. Retrofitting the basins is not sufficient; only closure will prevent further groundwater contamination. With the looming August 2020 deadline, it is already too late to go back to the 2015 rules, but a new deadline should be set for any retrofitted coal ash pits to be closed.
As long as the plants produce coal ash, we will need a sustainable way to dispose of it. Right now, coal ash can be recycled for use in concrete and cement products, as well as for wallboard used by the construction industry. Until coal power plants are obsolete, recycling and safe disposal of coal ash must be explored further. Quickly processing and recycling these byproducts will prevent them from sitting in pits and leaching into groundwater, making sure that communities like Belmont will not have to stay bottled up.
 United Nations General Assembly. “Resolution 64/292: On the Right to Water and Sanitation.” International Law & World Order. 2010.
 Lisa Sorg. “Duke Energy proposes providing permanent water to nearly 900 households.” The Progressive Pulse. 2016.
 Sam Perkins. “North Carolina Drinking Water Contamination Near Duke Energy Coal Ash Sites.” Southern Environmental Law Center. 2015.
 United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes.” 2010.
 United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Coal Ash Basics.” 2019.
 Environment America Research and Policy Center. “Coal Ash Pits.” 2018.
 “EPA Proposes to Roll Back 2015 Coal Ash Regulations.” Waste 360. 2019.
 Deon Roberts. “Duke Energy disputes findings of environmental report critical of coal ash operations.” The Charlotte Observer. 2019.
 Jeff Turrentine. “Coal Ash Is Hazardous. Coal Ash Is Waste. But According to the EPA, Coal Ash Is Not “Hazardous Waste.”” Natural Resources Defense Council. 2019.
 Dashiell Coleman. “Legal Battle Over Duke Energy Coal Ash Ends But Clean Up Has Years To Go.” WFAE 90.7, NPR Charlotte. 2020.
 “Ash Management and Basin Closure: Our Progress.” Duke Energy. 2020.
 “Ash Management and Basin Closure: Safe Recycling.” Duke Energy. 2020.