Flint…North Carolina?

With toxins recently found in drinking water in Person County, NC, many residents are wondering whether government officials are telling the whole truth, or if this may be turning into a “Flint Michigan” catastrophe.

Residents of North Carolina all remember the fiasco with Duke Energy’s coal ash spill in 2014.  Following the spill, there was a concern about drinking water for the surrounding areas.  The Dan River was highly polluted.  The accident occurred when one of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds leaked dangerous chemicals into the Dan River.  This spill had a wide reaching impact on the state, however different coal ash reservoirs are a new concern.  In North Carolina alone there are 32 coal ash reservoirs and the Dan River reservoir is not the only one that state ecologists are worried about.  Other reservoirs may be leaking into the local groundwater.

Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and other chemicals that can lead to very damaging effects on individuals.  Over 1,400 coal ash sites exist across the United States and 70 percent of them are located around low income communities.  Aside from cancer, drinking the water may cause birth defects in women if the water has high traces of lead.  Lead poisoning is irreversible and most of the time undetectable until it is too late.

The Dan River reservoir was unlined and seeps were identified.  In September 2009, a report found that two storm water pipes pass under the reservoir.  These pipes carried uncontaminated water into the Dan River from rain runoff.  However, on February 2, 2014, one of the pipes broke allowing the contaminated coal ash reservoir to pour out into the river.  Between 50,000 and 82,000 tons of coal ash and other harmful chemicals made its way into the Dan River.  This event occurred over two years ago, causing legislators to side against Duke Energy and call for closing all of the coal ash sites across the state.  However, it was not until two years after the Dan River spill that Megan Davies resigned.

Similar to North Carolina, at first the state publically denounced her work, saying she was causing near hysteria.

Following the leak of the Dan River Reservoir in 2014, the state began monitoring other coal ash ponds around the state.  Most of these ponds have been in operation since the 1930s and are unlined as well.  An unlined coal ash pond can easily leak into the surrounding water supply since there is no plastic lining holding it back.

Dr. Davies worked for the state for the last 8 years.  Before then she was a medical epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Basically, she is not new to the job.  Earlier this year, her staff presented their findings to Dr. Davies, who then briefed the Department leadership extensively on the issue.  When the state failed to act, she quit.

In her resignation letter, Dr. Davies stated that she did not want to work “for a department and an Administration [sic] that deliberately misleads the public.”  These statements followed the warning retraction that the state sent telling people living near ash ponds that their water was safe.  Three months prior to their retraction, the state warned residents that their water could be contaminated.

The situation looks eerily similar to what occurred in Flint, Michigan.  In Flint, the water supply was switched to a highly corrosive water source.  The new water source began to eat away at the lead pipes that were used to service the town’s residents.  The lead got into the water that was consumed by the community.  The town questioned the water supply, but both city and state officials told worried residents that everything was fine.

It was not until two years after the switch that residents learned of the lead content from Virginia Tech researchers who had traveled to Flint, Michigan to test the water supply.  For two years, the residents drank essentially poisoned water.  After the Virginia Tech study was released, the city claimed that their study was more reliable, but began issuing bottled water out to its residents.   A local doctor then released Medicare records showing that lead levels had doubled in toddlers in the last year.  Similar to North Carolina, at first the state publically denounced Dr. Davie’s work, saying she was causing near hysteria.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) openly criticized the report of Toxologist Ken Rudo and dismissed his findings as inconsistent with the facts on record.

In Person County, residents are forced to buy bottled water since the threat of toxins in their water supply is so high.  Well water sites around coal ash reservoirs were tested in the last ten years and the reports vary in results depending on who is being asked.  The state criticized Davies and the individuals who worked for her stating that their reports and claims are inconsistent with what they stated in the past.  In an editorial published by Tom Reeder, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) openly criticized the report of toxicologist Ken Rudo and dismissed his findings as inconsistent with the facts on record.  The state argues that he was just attempting to cause mass hysteria and panic.

However, if his findings are inconsistent, then why is Duke Energy distributing bottled water in Person County?  Even though Duke Energy claimed that the substances found in the water supply are not from their well, for the last year they have sent cartons of water bi-weekly to families in Person County.  In March of 2016, residents were able to sit down with Duke Energy and State Environmental Leaders to discuss the future plan to close the coal ash sites around the state.

Duke Energy plans to clean up all of the coal ash ponds by 2029, with the higher risk level ponds being cleaned up by 2019.  Residents fear that this plan may not be fast enough since there are already trace amounts of chemicals that have been found in water supplies.  With three coal ash ponds in Person County, it would only take one leak to set a community out of freshwater for years.

The question now is whether this is a cover up of a potential major catastrophe for North Carolina.  If the 30 ponds that are scattered throughout the state leaked into the local water tables in their respective areas, there could be thousands of individuals who would be drinking toxic water for quite some time.  If this is proven to be true, Duke Power would very likely be subject to a large and possibly crippling class action suit.

Hopefully, North Carolina does not know a disaster is looming on the edge of public knowledge.  If this is a repeat of recent history, it will spell disaster for the Tar Heel State far more than what occurred in Michigan.  Since the 32 ponds are not located in a certain area, a much larger threat is on the home front for North Carolina.

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About Cyrus Corbett V, Associate Editor Emeritus (16 Articles)
Cyrus Corbett V is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2016-2017 academic year. He is from Murrells Inlet, South Carolina and received his Bachelors in Arts in Government from Wofford College in 2014. Since July after his first year of law school, Cyrus has interned at the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association in downtown Raleigh focusing on the Retail Merchants Handbook. His interest is in jurisprudence of the law and negotiation/ mediation.
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