MountainTrue staff were able to thank the Department of Environmental Quality’s Chief Deputy Secretary John Nicholson (far left) and Secretary Michael Regan (center) in person for their recent historic decision to require Duke Energy to dig up all of its remaining coal ash ponds in North Carolina.
This time of year, protecting Western North Carolina’s shared places means taking road trips to Raleigh.
With the General Assembly now running full steam, MountainTrue staff are making regular visits to the state capitol to speak up for our mountains. We made our second visit of the year last week to have conversations with a number of key legislators as well as the leadership at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
At the General Assembly, we had good visits with Representatives John Ager, Kevin Corbin, Josh Dobson, Susan Fisher, Cody Henson, Chuck McGrady and Ray Russell, as well as Senators Deanna Ballard and Chuck Edwards. Thank you to all of these lawmakers for making time for us.
Much of our conversation focused on funding for a variety of conservation efforts in Western North Carolina. These include improvements to the French Broad Paddle Trail, creating permanent public access to the Green River and removing a dam on the Watauga River to improve water quality and fish habitat improving public recreation and reducing flooding.
Another priority for MountainTrue this year is to increase the state’s investment in water quality testing in our region. While North Carolina regularly tests its beach waters to protect public health, there is no comparable effort for WNC’s rivers and streams. This is true despite our region’s rapidly growing population and the increasing number of tourists who now swim, paddle, wade and tube in our untested rivers and streams. Unfortunately, these waters are often of lower quality than we’d like them to be. In 2017 and 2018, more than three-quarters of the streams monitored by MountainTrue did not pass the EPA safe water quality standard for E. coli at some point in the year.
We’re also calling on lawmakers to re-establish the Wastewater Discharge Elimination (WaDE) Program, which before its demise reduced bacterial pollution by identifying pollution associated with straight pipes and failing septic systems in Western North Carolina. Between 2002 and 2010, the program surveyed 28 separate areas, visited 13,379 homes and identified 2,016 violations.
Then at the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), we had a brief few moments with Sec. Michael Regan and were able to give him two thank you cards – one for him and another for Gov. Cooper – signed by MountainTrue staff for the administration’s recent, historic decision to require Duke Energy to dig up all remaining coal ash ponds in North Carolina.
Then we got down to business, with conversations about MountainTrue’s legislative agenda, concerns about several water quality issues in the North Toe and Green Rivers and some ideas about improving the process the Department uses to engage and educate the public during public meetings. Overall we’ve found that Department officials have consistently been willing to listen to our concerns and, in most cases, work with us to find shared solutions.
MountainTrue’s next Raleigh road trip is scheduled for early May. If you would like to plug in and help support our policy agenda, please contact our Advocacy & Communications Associate Eliza Stokes at firstname.lastname@example.org. And as always, thanks for the support that makes our legislative advocacy efforts possible!
MountainTrue’s Statement on DEQ’s Announcement to Order Full Excavation of Duke Energy’s Coal Ash Pits in North Carolina
Broad Riverkeeper, MountainTrue
E: email@example.com P: 704-300-5069
April 3 2019
Cliffside, N.C. – On April 1, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced that they will require full excavation of all coal ash impoundments in NC. As a result, a total of nine coal ash pits at six coal-burning plants – Allen, Belews, Cliffside/Rogers, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro – must be fully excavated and moved to lined landfills. Below are statements from MountainTrue’s Broad Riverkeeper, David Caldwell, and MountainTrue’s Co-Director, Julie Mayfield.
“This is a huge victory for clean water and the health of communities living near coal-burning power plants in North Carolina. DEQ has proven their mettle, showing the people of our state that they intend to do their job of protecting our water and environment. They have shown big business and industry that polluting our water is unacceptable, and that polluters will be held accountable. This has been a long battle for frontline communities, which have shouldered the burden and the risks associated with coal-fired power for decades.
I personally became involved in the fight to clean up coal ash in 2014, and started the Broad River Alliance in 2015. In 2016 I attended the first of DEQ’s public input meetings regarding Cliffside, joining over one hundred concerned local citizens who stood up and spoke out for clean water. We asked DEQ and Duke Energy to do the right thing and dig up the ash that has been sitting in our groundwater and leaking dangerous contaminants into the Broad River.
The Cliffside community has been showing up and speaking out about the dangers of coal ash for the past three years. Finally, a victory has come for the people and for the environment that sustains us all. It is truly possible that I will one day be able to say to the young fishermen of the Broad River, ‘Yes, the fishing here is fantastic! And these fish are good to eat! We have clean water and we intend on keeping it!’”
–David Caldwell, Broad Riverkeeper for MountainTrue
“MountainTrue is so grateful to DEQ for listening to affected communities and heeding the science showing that full excavation is the only safe option for coal ash closure in our state.
MountainTrue and the Sierra Club launched the focus on coal ash in North Carolina in 2012 as part of the Asheville Beyond Coal campaign. Through that campaign, we secured the forthcoming retirement of Asheville’s coal plant on Lake Julian and the full excavation of those coal ash ponds. This put Asheville’s air and water on a pathway to a cleaner future, but the future for the people and environment in Cliffside and other frontline communities across the state were until now uncertain. This historic decision by DEQ will change all of that.
MountainTrue is grateful for the affected community members who spoke out at hearing after hearing to help secure this victory, as well as for grassroots organizers all across the state and partner organizations like the Southern Environmental Law Center who made this outcome possible. We will continue to monitor this process closely, and we call on North Carolina’s legislators to help ensure that DEQ’s decision is implemented efficiently and justly for the people of North Carolina.”
–Julie Mayfield, Co-Director for MountainTrue
And a good deal of the push and pull will be over the environment.
Cooper, of course, is feeling his oats after the November election reduced the number of GOP lawmakers in both the House and Senate to numbers too modest to override his vetoes. For the first time since the election of 2016, both sides will be forced to negotiate and compromise in order to get anything done.
Republican leaders are talking a good game of cooperation and bipartisanship. Whether both sides can come together to come up with bipartisan solutions remains to be seen.
When and if lawmakers do get down to negotiating, they are likely to have a number of major environmental issues to wrestle with, including:
Open Space Trust Funds – Two of the state’s most important conservation funds, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreational Trust Fund, are caught up in a nasty political battle over executive power and gubernatorial appointments. The question of who appoints the members of these and other state boards and commissions has put them at risk of extinction by GOP lawmakers looking for ways to force Cooper to make concessions on his appointment authority. Look for this fight to continue well into the 2019 session.
Water Protection – Last year, the General Assembly was roiled by the issue of what to do about the presence of “emerging contaminants” like GenX in the state’s drinking water. The issue dominated two separate special sessions, the regular summer session, and spilled over to the November elections – when a number of lawmakers in the Cape Fear region got pounded by their opponents and voters for being too slow to act on water quality protection. Look for Cooper to renew his call for substantial new investments in the Department of Environmental Quality to protect drinking water supplies. This is likely to remain a budget priority this year.
Storm Preparedness – After Hurricane Florence, Cooper released a disaster recovery plan that included substantial new investment in wetland protection, coastal resilience, hog farm buyouts and other measures to get North Carolina ready for “the next big one.” To date, lawmakers have funded traditional recovery efforts – with relief for farmers topping all expenditures – but have not invested much in the way of preparedness. With the six-month anniversary of Florence in March during the budget process, our hope is that the legislature will better address preparedness and adaptation.
Here at MountainTrue, we are refining our legislative priorities for lawmakers and will share them in our next update. Until then, thanks for supporting our advocacy efforts in Raleigh!
On January 22, the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) will host an information session and receive public input about coal ash pond closure options for Duke’s Cliffside plant. The input they receive at this meeting and through public comments will help decide whether NCDEQ enforces a full cleanup of Duke Energy’s coal ash or allows them to leave it “capped in place” at the site.
What’s Happening With Coal Ash at Cliffside?
Duke Energy’s coal ash pits at its James E. Rogers Energy Complex – more commonly known as the Cliffside Steam Station – store millions of tons of coal ash waste in a pit that extends approximately 80 feet deep into the groundwater table in violation of federal rules. Located in Cliffside, N.C. on the border of Cleveland and Rutherford counties, this waste is seeping into the Broad River, and polluting the groundwater with toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and lead.
In December 2018, Duke acknowledged another violation of federal rules intended to protect people from coal ash contamination – surpassing the federal groundwater standards for arsenic and cobalt. This is one of many legal violations at Cliffside related to coal ash storage, and Duke’s noncompliance means seepages around the impoundment are getting into wetlands and streams, and ultimately the Broad River.
What’s “Cap In Place”?
Duke Energy wants to leave its coal ash right where it is – in massive unlined pits seeping into the groundwater and the Broad River, and polluting the groundwater with toxic heavy metals. “Cap in place” simply means that the coal ash would be covered up but would remain in the groundwater table, causing permanent pollution of groundwater and migration of pollutants to surface water and the Broad River. To comply with the law and protect water quality, Duke must excavate the coal ash now.
Duke Energy is already required to remove its coal ash at eight other sites in North Carolina and all of its sites in South Carolina –Cliffside’s families and community deserve the same protections. NCDEQ needs to hear us loud and clear: We need cleanup, not cover-up!
What Can I Do?
1. Come to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s public information session on Jan. 22 in Forest City to call for cleanup, not cover-up, of Cliffside’s coal ash. Find the details for the event here.
2. Take action here to tell NCDEQ that Duke’s coal ash should be moved out of the groundwater, away from the Broad River, and into the lined landfill on their property.
Legislators were in Raleigh for a day last week to open the 2019 session of the North Carolina General Assembly. Surrounded by their families, lawmakers took their oaths of office, elected their officers – and then promptly recessed. They will reconvene Jan. 30 and meet weekly until they complete their work some time later this year.
Quick reminder: in odd-numbered years, North Carolina lawmakers begin their work in January and, historically, complete it some time in the summer. In even-numbered years, session begins in May. Because North Carolina does not limit the length of the session, there is no hard deadline for completing their work.
As expected, GOP Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County relied on his party’s majority in the House to become speaker for a third, two-year term. In the Senate, GOP Sen. Phil Berger of Rockingham was elected to lead the Senate for the fifth consecutive session.
Moore also announced a few key committee appointments, two of which have important implications for Western North Carolina conservation and environmental advocates. Complete House committee assignments are not expected until late January.
Henderson County GOP Rep. Chuck McGrady was re-appointed as co-chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which oversees the development of the state’s $24 billion state budget. First elected in 2010, McGrady – former national president of the Sierra Club – has promoted a pro-environment policy agenda while also becoming a trusted member of the House GOP caucus and Moore’s leadership team. While some environmental advocates would like McGrady to be a stronger critic of the GOP legislature’s environmental record, there is no question that he has sponsored a number of key environmental bills, stopped or improved many harmful environmental bills, and boosted funding for open space conservation and other environmental investments. McGrady’s return to the appropriations leadership will be his last, as he is widely expected to retire after the 2019-20 legislative term.
WNC has another (rising) appropriations chair in GOP Rep. Josh Dobson, whose district includes Avery, McDowell and Mitchell counties. Dobson has quietly developed a reputation as a thoughtful, accessible, no-ego lawmaker with considerable policy expertise in health and human services. His promotion to full appropriations chair could give McGrady a natural ally in the appropriations give-and-take within the House GOP caucus, in negotiations with the Senate and with Governor Roy Cooper.
In the Senate, committee appointments were announced late last week. Notable for environmentalists is Henderson County GOP Sen. Chuck Edwards’ appointment as co-chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on Natural and Economic Resources, which develops the Senate’s spending plan for all state environmental conservation programs. Should McGrady and Edwards team up, they could direct considerable resources to WNC. Also notable: WNC GOP Sen. Ralph Hise will chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which reviews all tax and fee changes. And WNC GOP Sen. Jim Davis returns to his leadership spot as senior chair of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation funding.
Here at MountainTrue, we are finalizing our legislative agenda for 2019 and scheduling visits to Raleigh throughout the year to speak up for Western North Carolina’s environment. Look for a detailed outline of our 2019 priorities in an upcoming MT Raleigh Report, and thank you for all your support for our policy work!
Over the next few months, our Riverkeepers are teaming up with volunteers to plant “live stakes” along rivers in our region. We’re calling for potential volunteers like you to join us for a live staking day to help make this project a success.
What exactly is a live stake?
A live stake is a cutting from a tree species like silky dogwood, black willow, or elderberry that can be planted along riverbanks. The live stake then grows into a tree that reduces sediment erosion. Some of our supporters are surprised to learn that sediment is one of the worst polluters of our rivers, but it’s true – sediment clogs aquatic habitats, increases water temperatures (which is bad news for trout and many other species) and transports toxic substances. Live staking also increases the density of the riparian buffer, which is the vegetated area surrounding a waterway that helps provide shade and filter out substances that normally enter the river from runoff. And since we’ve been planting trees along the rivers for the past few years, we can now take cuttings from those same trees that were live stakes only a few years ago. It’s a cost-effective, natural way to improve water quality and aquatic habitats.
We have our live staking days, which we also call Paddle-n-Plant days, from January to March because live stakes can only be planted while the plants are still dormant. When the spring comes, the stakes’ nodes that were planted underground will sprout roots, helping to hold the riverbank in place.
Help Grow Our Impact
MountainTrue volunteers and our Riverkeepers have planted thousands of trees through our live staking days, and this year our Riverkeepers have set their sights on ways to increase their impact. Watershed Outreach Coordinator Anna Alsobrook’s goal this year is to more accurately determine the survival rate of the live stakes on the French Broad River. By spray-painting the tips of the stakes, she’ll be able to see them more easily from the river during follow up. In the High Country, Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill hopes to plant 3,000 stakes by March.
We need your help to make our live staking days a success. It will make a huge difference for the rivers if you sign up for a live staking day here, or donate to MountainTrue to make these efforts possible here.