Five Years After Kingston's Coal Ash Disaster... We Get West Virginia
Chemical Disaster Reminds Us of Threats to Drinking Water Supply
A December to Remember. 'Ashbergs' from the Kingston coal ash spill inundated hundreds of acres and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes.
Five years ago, we saw the ultimate disaster.
Just 18 days ago, we saw the ultimate crisis.
Could the West Virginia crisis happen here?
Here in the Catawba basin, we have the potential for the intersection of disaster and crisis on an unprecedented scale.
Shortly before 1:00 AM on December 22, 2008, more than 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash inundated hundreds of acres of the Emory River and surrounding landscape, including dozens of homes. 'Ashbergs' steeped metals into the water. Here in the Catawba-Wateree basin, we have fought and continue to fight to make sure the same could never happen here. Were such a spill to happen on Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake (MIL), or Lake Wylie, the results would be orders of magnitude more catastrophic for the area's drinking water supply, environment, economy, recreation and more. The blessings of Kingston were that no one was killed, and the rural nature of the location did not cause a drinking water crisis as seen in West Virginia.
Today, the cleanup continues to the cost of approximately $1.5 billion, and lawsuits against Tennessee Valley Authority (the utility that owns the plant) remain in courts. The EPA did request information on coal ash ponds from their owners. We ultimately learned that the U.S. has 1,161 ponds, 535 of which are unlined. The EPA listed 44 ponds as "High Hazard," meaning the potential for catastrophic damage and even loss of life; 4 of those 44 sit in a 29-mile span of the Catawba River on Norman, MIL and Wylie.
We learned of the threat, but we didn't learn from the Kingston disaster. Neither the EPA nor individual states have implemented the necessary coal ash monitoring and regulations. Small dike failures and spills have continued to occur. Unlined coal ash ponds are leaking a steady stream of contamination into groundwater and surface waters. To stop the steady stream of contamination and to prevent the disaster of a coal ash pond failure, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and Southern Environmental Law Center together have filed lawsuits against Duke Energy to force the cleanup of coal ash ponds immediately upstream of drinking water intakes. While those cases are still in the courts, our success in the courts is not unprecedented.
In August 2012, after filing a lawsuit in May 2012, we reached an agreement with SCE&G to clean up its coal ash ponds on the Wateree River. This past fall, another South Carolina utility (Santee-Cooper) agreed to clean up its coal ash in Conway, SC. Starting in March 2013, we filed lawsuits against Duke Energy to force the cleanup of the hundreds of acres of leaking coal ash on Norman, Mountain Island and Wylie that are propped up 80 feet high directly on these lakes serving as drinking water reservoirs. Our filings also prompted NC DENR to file against Duke. In its legal filing, NC DENR said that Duke Energy’s pollution of Mountain Island Lake is illegal and that it “poses a serious danger to the health, safety, and welfare of the people of the state of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the State.” But Duke has continued to resist cleaning up its mess. NC DENR and Duke rushed to the table a do-nothing settlement that amounts to a request for information. The public submitted 5,000 public comments, with literally all but one comment opposing the settlement.
In West Virginia, a storage tank leaked toxic chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or crude MCHM, into the Elk River and drinking water intake for 300,000 people. Without usable water, everything shut down from restaurants to hotels to hair salons; the economy as frozen as an Arctic blast. While most areas have been deemed safe enough to start drinking the water again, the state's Department of Health and Human Resources' Bureau for Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended pregnant women not drink the water. This is because the chemical is still present and detectable in the drinking water, and despite knowing very little about its effects, the state has figured the water is safe enough for most but not all, if they can even purport to know that much. Links to articles with more detail are at the bottom.
So, Could West Virginia Happen Here?
What are the similarities, the differences?
Yes, the West Virginia crisis could happen, and here, it would happen on a much larger scale. The key similarity is that we have major potential pollutant sources (coal ash ponds and chemical storage) immediately upstream of drinking water intakes. The key differences are in magnitude and cleanup.
A coal ash pond failure would physically look a lot like that in Kingston. However, the surrounding landscape is much different.
The affected waterways in West Virginia were not dammed, meaning the chemical plume was able to flush through relatively easily. All three coal ash pond sites on the Catawba are situated far behind dams, meaning flushing would be much more difficult. The chemical itself in the WV spill was soluble in water, too, aiding that flushing. Coal ash would be another story. Ash would disperse, settle in the stagnant lakes, and steep (like tea) toxic metals and chemicals for a long time.
The magnitude of those affected would be much greater. The WV spill affected 300,000 who drink from the intake immediately downstream of that spill. More than 860,000 people drink from Mountain Island Lake, and hundreds of thousands more drink from Lake Norman and Lake Wylie. There would of course be problems downstream, too. The WV spill forced Cincinnati and two Kentucky towns to close their intakes as the chemical plume passed on the Ohio River, affecting another 300,000-plus and generating extra treatment expenses for the utilities. A spill on Lake Norman would directly affect Mooresville, Lincoln County, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg intakes, as well as all intakes downstream (the larger Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the Mount Holly and the Gastonia intakes on MIL; the Belmont and Rock Hill intakes on Lake Wylie; and other intakes through South Carolina all the way down to the Atlantic). The Catawba River is already overly stressed.
And finally, and perhaps most lost on coal ash, is that the concern would go well beyond just metals associated with coal ash. The ponds are allowed to receive a lot more than coal ash. A number of industrial chemicals and wastes have been and continue to be allowed to be disposed of in the ponds. Lab waste. Boiler slag. Metal cleaning chemicals. Even the sewage from the power plant. The list of chemicals for which testing would need to be performed would be a mile long. Long-banned and long-buried chemicals (i.e., PCBs) could be reintroduced.
One of my greatest points of emphasis is that testing is not simple and not cheap. There is no single machine into which you pop a sample, run it through, and receive every atom, molecule and concentration of those. Testing methods can be very elaborate in the preparation required before running a sample through a machine. Industry has developed more chemicals than we can imagine to reduce costs and make our lives more convenient, but there is a cost in doing that, especially if waste is not properly handled.
Do we want to know what's in our drinking water? Of course! But can we truly know? It wouldn't be cheap or easy. Water treatment plants do regularly test for a very few pollutants but by no means all that are of concern for chronic exposure, no matter how small the quantity. Pharmaceuticals are the best example of this, as wastewater treatment plants struggle to remove them. Even if we could easily test for everything, one other key factor remains: we don't have the studies to know the effect of so many chemicals.
The group American Rivers has provided a hint that we in the Catawba are dangerously close to an unprecedented crisis in America from the intersection of water quality (coal ash contamination) AND water quantity (high demand) crises. In 2008, it named the Catawba River the #1 Most Endangered River in America because of water quantity concerns (inter-basin transfers to the east, combined with a drought, were of major concern at that time). In 2013, it named the Catawba River the #5 Most Endangered River because of water quality threats from coal ash, though no higher-ranked river was listed because of water quality concerns.
The best thing we can do is not store (or play Jenga in the case of coal ash) with toxic chemicals on the banks of our drinking water reservoirs. This way, we don't have to worry about leaks and catastrophic failure. We need to learn from the Kingston disaster and the West Virginia crisis, for the simultaneous intersection of those will be worlds greater than the sum of their parts.