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Big Coal Put Toxic Coal Ash in Unlined Dirt Ponds—Now a Hurricane Is Heading Directly Toward Them

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As the East Coast prepares for Hurricane Florence to make landfall, fear is growing that the storm could result in catastrophic waste spills. Twenty-four toxic coal ash containment ponds in the path of the storm are at risk of flooding in the extreme rainfall. We are joined by Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance; Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center; and Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from San Francisco from the Global Climate Action Summit, but we’re continuing to talk about what’s happening in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, millions of residents bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Florence, which meteorologists are warning could unleash life-threatening storm surges and historic flooding across a wide swath of the East Coast. Even if the storm weakens, experts warn Hurricane Florence could kill thousands of farm animals, trigger catastrophic waste spills from sewage treatment plants, hog waste lagoons and chicken farms. Meanwhile, InsideClimate News has published a map showing 24 toxic coal ash containment ponds in the path of Hurricane Florence that may flood in the extreme rainfall.

We’re continuing our discussion in North Carolina, where we’re joined in Charlotte by Frank Holleman, who is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, where he works on protecting rivers, streams, groundwater and drinking water sources from coal ash, including after a North Carolina facility owned by Duke Energy spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in 2014. And still with us, Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance, or manager of the organization’s North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign.

Frank, talk about the coal ash ponds and what you’re most concerned about right now. And thanks—as people are preparing in North Carolina, dealing, evacuating—for being in a studio, Frank.

FRANK HOLLEMAN: Yes. Well, thank you for having me. And we’re hoping and praying we don’t have a coal ash catastrophe in North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia in the next few days. But here’s what we face. The coal ash utilities in the Southeast, and in this instance, principally, Duke Energy and also Dominion in Virginia, have stored millions of tons of coal ash in unlined pits sitting directly adjacent to our rivers, lakes and drinking water reservoirs, and they’re held back only by dikes made up earth that leak.

Now, in the past 10 years, we’ve had two major coal ash disasters, one at TVA in its Kingston facility in Tennessee, and one by Duke Energy itself on the Dan River in North Carolina near the Virginia line. But those catastrophes happened on a good day when the sun was shining. Each of these sites, we’ve been warning—and it’s obvious—is a tremendous risk to our communities, particularly when we have a major hurricane, a flood or a storm.

So we’re sitting here with more than 20 disasters waiting to happen. We hope none of them do happen. But this is a risk we don’t have to tolerate. This ash can be moved to safe, dry, lined storage away from the rivers. And there is one somewhat good news story about this storm, and that is the coastal utilities in South Carolina, instead of lobbying and litigating, have actually been removing ash the last several years, so that the risk on the South Carolina coast is much reduced from coal ash. But in North Carolina and Virginia, our coastal residents have to fear the consequences of decades of bad practices and recent years of recalcitrance by Duke Energy and Dominion.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain where the coal ash comes from, Frank?

FRANK HOLLEMAN: Oh, sure. In other words, historically, a lot of the electricity in the Carolinas and Virginia and Georgia has been generated by burning coal. And you need two things to generate electricity from coal: You need coal to burn, and you need water to generate steam. So they’ve located these coal-fired plants near water bodies—that is, rivers and lakes and drinking water reservoirs.

And when they burn the coal, they’re left with ash. Now, the ash isn’t wet, and it doesn’t have to go in a pit. It could simply have been moved uphill and stored dry in a lined landfill, or even recycled into concrete. But instead, to save some money, and for their convenience, the utilities dug big pits between their plants and the river, simply because water runs downhill. So they’d suck water out of the river, mix it and create a polluted mess with this ash—they call that slurry—and then just flush it downhill into these unlined pits.

It’s obviously a foolish way to store this stuff, it’s obviously risky and dangerous, and it obviously pollutes on a good day. But on a bad day, when we have a serious hurricane, this unnecessary choice puts communities and waterways and clean drinking water at risk.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank, can you talk about the law that North Carolina passed six years ago prohibiting state and local agencies from making planning decisions based on the latest climate science about sea level rise?

FRANK HOLLEMAN: Well, it is just another chapter in the sad story we’ve seen in America. And that is, sometimes people with money at stake seek to deny the truth and prevent our agencies and communities from using good science because of those people’s financial self-interest.

The science has shown us that sea level rise is accelerating. And there was a proposal to prevent state agencies from considering that evidence at all when they make decisions about what can happen at the coast, in light of ongoing sea level rise. Well, that caused a furor, and the legislator involved became the subject of ridicule by Colbert and other comedians across the country, so they backed off, but they still said, in making projections out to 30 years, you can’t use that information.

More than anything, though, it illustrates how politicians who are responding to special interests can restrict and even intimidate state agencies and policymakers from using the best science to make the best decisions for the most people.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank, I wanted to bring Bill McKibben into this conversation. As I said, we’re here in San Francisco broadcasting through the week for all the events around the Global Climate Action Summit. Bill McKibben is one of those who was in the streets on Saturday. Tens of thousands of people marched in San Francisco, and of course people marched in hundreds of cities all over the world. But this issue of this law in North Carolina, Bill, if you could talk more about it?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, the first thing to be said is, everything is connected. How many stories have you done about gerrymandering and voting suppression and things in North Carolina? North Carolina has endured what amounts to a kind of corporate takeover of its politics in recent years, though people are fighting back hard. And one of the manifestations was an almost literally insane law, the kind of King Canute “Hold back the rising seas” law, that we weren’t going to pay attention to the latest climate science. Just imagine passing a law saying, in essence, “We cover our eyes and cover our ears.”

AMY GOODMAN: And so, they can’t deal with climate science when it comes to sea level rise, and that’s precisely, with Hurricane Florence, what they are terrified of at this moment.

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s right. They can’t—it stopped people from, among other things, really thinking as hard as they should be about coastal development. There’s been an increase of several orders of magnitude in the number of structures along the North Carolina coast in the last few decades, and I’m afraid we may find out just how flimsy a lot of that is in the next 48 hours.

As you know, the category strength of Florence has dropped, but it’s an enormous storm now, and it’s bringing not only storm surge probably on a record level, but once that water reaches inland and falls in the mountains, it’s going to be coming back down those rivers and streams, which are plugged by the higher sea level. The potential for a flooding catastrophe is like nothing we’ve almost ever seen.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to go back right now to Will Hendrick and ask you about the effects of what we’re talking about right now, particularly on communities of color and the most vulnerable populations. I mean, everyone is going to be affected, but talk about why this is of particular concern right now.

WILL HENDRICK: Certainly. And sadly, while our leaders have their heads in the sand, many North Carolinians are filling sandbags and preparing for the impact of this storm, and it’s one more thing that some among us have to worry about. Every North Carolinian in the coastal plain is making preparations to ensure their family and their property are safe, but, unfortunately, some North Carolinians have industrial operations situated right next to them, and that means that while they’re worrying about the storm, they’re also worrying about the flooding, the runoff, the potential structural failure of the impoundment storing tremendous volumes of animal waste next door to their homes, next door to their property, next door to the castle to which they’re retreating in this time of need. And that, sadly, is a plight that is disproportionately felt and experienced by communities of color. They are more likely to live next to one of these industrial hog operations.

And that’s a point that we have made to our leaders in our environmental Division of Water Resources, and that’s the division that permits the continued operation of this outdated lagoon and spray field system. And so, along with Naeema Muhammad and her group at North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and some of the local environmental justice organizations like the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, we pointed out the fundamental problems with discriminating in that fashion and making some among us more required to and more vulnerable to living near these inherently threatening industrial waste sources.

Many of them are concerned about what they’ve seen in the past and what they expect to repeat—those lagoons overflowing, the dikes that keep the waste collected failing and spewing millions of gallons into their drinking water sources, into their recreational waters. And, you know, the impacts have been seen and experienced countless times now in North Carolina, and as a result of climate change, these storms are growing increasingly frequent and severe, and it’s past time for our leaders to demand better waste management. And if, as projected, this storm causes the damage that it might, I hope that our leaders, when asked to rebuild this industry, will rebuild it with better technology so that it stands on better footing and North Carolinians can better live their lives without fear of interference by industrial operations next door.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Hendrick, I want to thank you for being with us, of the Waterkeeper Alliance, speaking to us from Raleigh, North Carolina. I also want to thank Frank Holleman with Southern Environmental Law Center, speaking to us from Charlotte, North Carolina. I hope you are all safe. Of course, we will continue to follow this storm that people are talking about as one of the worst possibly that the East Coast has faced in a very long time. I also want to thank Bill McKibben, but he’s staying with us, co-founder of 350.org. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Rise: From One Island to Another,” poetry by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner of the Marshall Islands and Aka Niviâna of Greenland. It’s part of a project that our guest, Bill McKibben, was part of.

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