Viewpoint

Do we really have clean, dependable water?

From Rick Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, and Sam Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper:

From our bodies to our economy, we need clean, dependable water. We enjoy clean water, too, be it for swimming, fishing, kayaking or gazing. Water is our most critical natural resource, and all of this is true regardless of political affiliation.

Yet, for more than a half-century, billions of gallons of toxic coal ash and other chemicals have sat propped up high on the banks of our drinking water reservoirs. It’s the worst location possible.

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and other environmental groups have brought lawsuits against Duke Energy. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has brought lawsuits against Duke Energy. This year, we experienced the nation’s third-largest failure of a coal ash lagoon. Nonetheless, two months ago, some very disappointing legislation passed in the N.C. General Assembly, demonstrating we have a long way to go.

The Riverkeeper Foundation is running an ad campaign to provide education on this issue, which for far too long has remained hidden and unaddressed in the public realm. Most folks don’t know that Duke Energy’s coal ash discharge permits allow for unlimited release of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, mercury, selenium, thallium and other elements. Metals associated with coal ash are the same ones we have for years used as pesticides (arsenic) and rat poisons (thallium).

North Carolina allows discharges of these elements to exceed drinking water standards. With the Clean Water Act of 1972, we were supposed to change the culture of pollution in the United States. The goal was – by the mid-1980s – to eliminate discharges of these pollutants.

Yet, 42 years later, Duke Energy still doesn’t even have limits on a long list of toxic metals. Nor did Duke Energy care to get new discharges permitted. They hid the discharges and hid the facts. Even after Duke Energy’s smallest coal ash site (Dan River) had a disastrous failure, the N.C. General Assembly in August passed legislation that would allow the option for Duke to leave 10 of its 14 sites in place.

Think about that. These are old, waterfront sites, exposed to the elements and primed to fail in another disaster. When this is the regulatory culture, disasters like Dan River happen. When drinking water crises happen, as in West Virginia and Ohio earlier this year, local economies are decimated. Everything from hotels to restaurants to hair salons must shut down. The Riverkeeper Foundation has simply asked Duke Energy and the State to move coal ash away from water and to a lined, monitored site.

We have long encouraged citizens to talk to their elected representatives and regulators. Constituents have a powerful voice. All constituents need clean, dependable water. In 2015, permits in the Catawba River basin will come up for renewal on their five-year cycle. Right now, in one of the worst years ever for U.S. waterways, each of us needs to understand the threats to North Carolina’s water and discuss the issue with those who are supposed to protect and serve us.

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