The Pulse

‘Parents like me should not have the burden of proving that coal ash is dangerous’

By: - October 3, 2019 9:00 am
Susan Wind and her husband, David Wind. They moved to Florida due to concerns about elevated cancer risks in Mooresville, N.C.

ARLINGTON, Va. — Susan Wind’s 19-year-old daughter is recovering from thyroid cancer, but Wind still worries constantly about her family’s health.

Wind, a former resident of Mooresville, N.C., moved with her family to Florida after her daughter was among the 110 people diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the area within the last five years.

“We didn’t feel safe,” she told Policy Watch in an interview on Wednesday. Her daughter is improving, but she still struggles with her health, Wind said. The move to a new state was hard on her kids, and she’s still concerned about her family. “I’m worried about all of our health,” she said.

After her daughter’s diagnosis, Wind began to investigate the high rate of thyroid cancer in two zip codes near Lake Norman: 28115 and 28117. She believes the illnesses could be linked to toxins contained in the coal ash found throughout the community. She raised $110,000 for a Duke University Study to investigate what might be causing the cancer.

Policy Watch reported about the suspected cancer cluster and Wind’s family in June 2018.

Wind’s former home is less than two miles from Duke Energy’s Marshall Steam Plant, which sits on Lake Norman.

North Carolina officials in April ordered Duke to remove coal ash from its impoundments at Marshall and five other plants.

Meanwhile, Duke is contesting the decision through the Office of Administrative Hearings.

This week, Wind traveled to a hotel outside of Washington, D.C., to urge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to abandon its plans to roll back rules the Obama administration put in place in 2015 to regulate coal ash disposal at power plants around the country.

“It is completely irresponsible to deregulate coal any further so utility companies can save a buck,” Wind told EPA officials as she testified at a public hearing on the proposal. 

“Until the government can prove that this coal ash is safe in our water, soil and air, and that it is not responsible for any cancers or any illnesses in each of these towns across this country, environmental rollbacks should not even be considered. Parents like me should not have the burden of proving that coal ash is dangerous,” she added.

Coal ash is the residue from burning coal in power plants. It’s often held in impoundments near power plants and contains harmful chemicals like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute the air and drinking water, according to EPA.

The Trump EPA’s plan, announced in July, would change a requirement in the Obama-era rule specifying that massive deposits of coal ash (12,400 tons or more) must demonstrate that the environment is protected.

EPA has proposed to replace that size-based criteria with a location-based criteria, meaning industry would only need to demonstrate environmental protection if the coal ash were stored in sensitive areas like wetlands, floodplains or seismic zones.

“These proposed changes will further responsible management of coal ash while protecting human health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in July when he announced the proposed rule change. He added that it would “continue to encourage appropriate beneficial use,” of coal ash, which is used to make concrete and wallboard.

Coal ash slated for “beneficial use” is excluded from federal rules and is subject to control by state environmental agencies.

Wind joined a Duke University scientist, environmental attorneys and others on Wednesday warning EPA that the changes would boost industry at the expense of public health.

EPA officials announced that they wouldn’t be responding to the public comments, and they sat stoically throughout witnesses’ testimony.

Wind told them she is “deeply concerned” that the changes have come from Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist. “Utility companies got away with improperly disposing of this toxic dirt for decades and now we are left with pollution that puts our communities at risk and decision-makers who seemingly work for the coal and utility industries and not for the public.”

Lisa Evans, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said the EPA proposal “ignores science and sweeps away protections” by exempting mountainous piles of toxic coal ash from regulations.

She warned that her group would sue over the final rule. “This proposal is not only immoral and contrary to science, it is illegal. EPA: we will see you in court and again we will prevail.”

Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University who has conducted extensive research on coal ash, warned that EPA’s proposed changes would “considerably weaken” the existing regulation and would pose a higher risk to water resources and human health.

He also objected to the term “beneficial use,” for coal ash, calling it misleading. “It’s not beneficial use when you put coal ash into the environment.”

Megan Kimball, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, urged EPA to set strong federal standards for coal ash to protect states that don’t have adequate rules on the books.

North Carolina passed its own law to regulate coal ash in 2014 after a Duke Energy storage pond spewed about 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

That spill also impacted Virginia, Kimball noted, showing that coal ash pollution doesn’t remain within state lines.

“In light of the absence of adequate state regulation, the EPA plays a vital role in protecting our water and our communities from coal ash pollution,” she told federal officials. “The EPA must set strong minimum protections so that other states can avoid the major problems that North Carolina has experienced.”

EPA is accepting public comments on the coal ash proposal until Oct. 15.

Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief for the States Newsroom network, of which Policy Watch is a member. Lisa Sorg contributed to this report.

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Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender, DC Bureau Chief, coordinates States Newsroom’s Washington, D.C., coverage. She keeps tabs on states’ U.S. congressional delegations and writes about how decisions made by federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts impact states across the country. [email protected]