Shortly after Hurricane Matthew pounded North Carolina in October 2016, swelling the Neuse River to a level never seen before, Matthew Starr ventured out on the river to see some of the damage himself. It was almost otherworldly.
"When the flood water receded, I was out on the boat, doing a patrol on one of the inactive ash ponds, and it really looked like a winter wonderland," says Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper for Sound Rivers, a nonprofit that monitors and protects the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico River basins. "Here was this white, very fine ash up in the trees, on the water, on the trunks, on the leaves. It was just everywhere. If you just slightly bumped a tree, it would just rain down this very fine ash.
"Fast forward two years later ... not a single shovel of ash has been removed."
The ash Starr talks about is coal ash, an ecological can that the state — and the whole country — has been kicking down the road for decades. In 2014, more than 30,000 tons (27,215 metric tons) of coal ash spilled into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina in something the locals came to call "The Heartbreak on the Dan." Brian Williams, the Virginia program manager for the Dan River Basin Association — the 214-mile (344-kilometer) river that crosses the Virginia-North Carolina line eight times — was one of the first on the scene.
"The river ran gray for weeks after that," Williams says now. "People still ask me, 'Is it safe to go wading in the river?' ... I don't know. I can't say the same thing about it that I used to be able to."
What Is Coal Ash?
Coal ash is just what you'd figure it to be: what's left over from burning coal. Though coal consumption has dropped dramatically in recent years — it peaked in 2007, and the electric power sector used less coal in 2017 than in any year since 1983, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But power plants throughout the nation still use a staggering amount of it. About 717 million tons (650 million metric tons) of it were consumed in 2017, most used to produce electricity. (About 30 percent of the nation's energy still comes from coal.) And, of course, millions and millions of tons of coal ash are left over from when the U.S. was more coal-dependent.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that coal ash is one of the largest types of industrial waste produced in the United States. More than 130 million tons (117 million metric tons) of the stuff was generated in 2014 alone. Though there are some uses for the ash — to strengthen things like wallboard and concrete, mainly — most is discarded into dry landfills or wet ponds near the power plants where it was produced, as it has been for decades, and where it just sits.
Until, that is, something happens. A flooding river or lake nearby. A dam break. And then catastrophe.
"Almost every major river in the Southeast has at least one coal ash pond [nearby]," Rebecca Fry, the director of the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said in an email.
Rivers and streams near coal-burning plants are used to cool machinery and produce steam. But they also provide a way out for the ash if it's not disposed of properly. And the problem with coal ash getting loose in the environment is that it is, in a word, toxic. From Physicians for Social Responsibility:
"[C]oal ash typically contains heavy metals including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, as well as aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc. If eaten, drunk or inhaled, these toxicants can cause cancer and nervous system impacts such as cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. They can also cause heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children."
The worst coal ash spill ever came in December 2008, when a dike at a storage site at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant burst, releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of wet ash into the surrounding land in Roane County, Tennessee. The sludge covered some 300 acres (121 hectares), befouling land and waters and prompting a years-long cleanup.
More than 30 workers charged with getting rid of the coal ash already have died, allegedly from long-term exposure to the toxins. At least 200 more are sick or dying. Lawsuits are pending.
North Carolina has had a few spills. After the Dan River disaster, rains from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in September 2018, caused coal ash to spill into other North Carolina rivers. Though Duke Energy, the state's largest utility, says the damage from the Hurricane Florence spill is minimal, a statement released Sept. 28, 2018, by the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance disputes that claim. An analysis by Pace Analytical not only found levels of arsenic nearly 18 times higher than the North Carolina standard for drinking water supply and fish consumption, but it also found elevated levels of lead and other heavy metals in the water.
"Are we going to see, 20 years from now, heavy metals in shellfish? Who knows? Probably. We just can't say right away," Williams says. "We can definitely say that concentrated heavy metals are not good in the environment."
What Can Be Done?
This is not a problem limited to the Southeast. According to the EPA, coal ash disposal (ash is also known as "coal combustion residuals," or CCR) "currently occurs at more than 310 active on-site landfills, averaging more than 120 acres (48 hectares) in size with an average depth of over 40 feet (12 meters), and at more than 735 active on-site surface impoundments, averaging more than 50 acres (20 hectares) in size with an average depth of 20 feet (6 meters)."
Some of the ash is stored in pits where it is mixed with water, which helps to keep the dusty ash settled. Some is stored dry. Some of these sites are covered. Some of the pits are lined. Environmentalists note that, even when sites aren't flooded or retaining walls aren't compromised, the minerals in the ash still can seep into water tables to infect drinking water.
"We know everything's not OK. Just sweeping this under the rug is not cutting it," Williams says. "What's going to fix this is good ideas and admitting, 'Yeah, this is a problem and we've got to figure out a solution."
Utilities, fearful of the huge costs associated with cleaning up these sites, favor sealing off the landfills and the ponds that hold coal ash. Groups like EcoWatch are leery of that solution. "To stop legacy pollution from these sites," says the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, "coal ash must be removed from old, leaking impoundments and moved to dry, lined storage away from rivers and other waterways."
Starr agrees. "This isn't without a fix. The fix is to excavate all of the coal ash. Once you remove all the coal ash ... the threat is removed. Excavating the coal ash, putting it away from our water resources and putting it into a lined landfill — your kitchen garbage has more strict restrictions on it — that's what you have to do. The fix is to remove it."
Disposal of all the coal residue is going to take years and years to pull off, all while plants across the country continue to produce it. That means coal ash will be a problem — for everybody — for the foreseeable future.
"It's not about the coal. It's about the water," says Tiffany Haworth, the executive director of the Dan River Basin Association. "We can't do much about coal that was burned 50 years ago. We just have to suck it up and do the best we can with that. The bottom line is protection of the waterways that are essential to life."