Equity In Every Drop: Series One

Episode 4: Toxic Trails: The Ongoing Impact of Coal Ash Pollution

Series one includes six episodes focused on the issues and advocacy priorities of our Climate and Safe Energy campaign.

In the fourth episode of Equity In Every Drop, host Thomas Hynes dives into the perilous world of coal ash, the toxic byproduct of coal combustion. The episode begins with an enlightening conversation with Dan Estrin, General Counsel and Legal Director of Waterkeeper Alliance. Dan breaks down what coal ash is, its history of unsafe disposal in the United States, and the severe environmental and health threats it poses due to its carcinogenic and radioactive components.

He also sheds light on the lack of substantial federal regulation until 2015 and the ongoing challenges of cleaning up over a hundred million tons of coal ash pollution produced annually. The discussion covers Waterkeeper Alliance’s legal battles and significant victories, including a landmark settlement with Duke Energy that mandates the cleanup of coal ash impoundments in North Carolina, and the broader implications for regulatory changes and industry practices.

The episode wraps up with insights from Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones, who elaborates on the local impact of coal ash pollution on communities in North Carolina and South Carolina, the legal struggles against Duke Energy, and the larger effort to prioritize environmental restoration and protection. Brandon discusses the future of Catawba Riverkeeper, shifting focus from coal ash litigation to broader restoration projects, emphasizing the importance of community engagement and volunteer efforts.

Through these compelling interviews, the episode paints a comprehensive picture of the dangers of coal ash and the tireless efforts of environmental advocates to combat this ongoing threat.

Stay tuned! New monthly episodes will be posted here and anywhere you get your podcasts. Click “Subscribe” in the episode widget above to access links to popular podcast apps.

Thank you for listening, sharing, and supporting our mission to ensure everyone’s right to clean water. Together, we demand equity in every drop.


Thomas Hynes: [00:00:00] Welcome back and thank you for joining us on our fourth episode of Equity In Every Drop. Today we are discussing coal ash, a dangerous byproduct from the already dangerous practice of coal combustion. We will be joined later by Brandon Jones of Catawba Riverkeeper in North Carolina, but our first guest today is Dan Estrin, general counsel and legal director of Waterkeeper Alliance. Dan, thank you so much for being with us here today.

Daniel Estrin: Thanks Tom. Really good to be with you.

Thomas Hynes: It’s great to see you. So let’s start at the top and tell me what coal ash is. I think of coal as being a problem when it’s being burned, but I never thought about the byproduct. And I think of it being like a respiratory and an air pollution problem, but it’s got this whole other facet. So please walk me through what coal ash is.

Daniel Estrin: Yeah. Simply put coal ash or CCR, coal combustion residuals, as they’re referred to by the utility industry and regulators is the waste product that’s left behind after a coal is burned to [00:01:00] produce electricity. Coal ash is a broad and general term and there are different types or categories of coal ash depending on where in the process they’re created or captured, but they are all collectively referred to as CCR or coal ash. And because of our country’s long history of using coal to generate electricity, there’s an almost unimaginable amount of coal ash that has historically been unsafely disposed of and that regulators and environmental groups like Waterkeeper Alliance are trying to get cleaned up.

Thomas Hynes: So it is an ongoing threat, but it’s also a real legacy contamination issue as well.

Daniel Estrin: It is. Even now in 2024 when we’ve been steadily reducing our reliance on burning coal to generate electricity. We’re still producing about 100 million tons of coal ash in the United States every year, so that that makes it one of the largest industrial waste streams in the [00:02:00] country. Um, and I want to emphasize that number 100 million tons is just an enormous amount of waste being generated every single year..

Thomas Hynes: Oh my God. That’s not factoring in the damage that the already existing mountains of coal ash are. Wow. That’s, that’s staggering. Um, So let’s talk about why this is a problem the environment and what threats this poses to the environment, because I think, I clearly understand why I don’t want to live next to a coal power plant for my lungs and for the sake of clean air. But tell me what threats coal ash pose to the environment.

Daniel Estrin: So coal ash is unfortunately a combination of very toxic carcinogenic and radioactive substances including heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, and selenium hexavalent chromium. which is a water soluble and extremely toxic substance and a proven Category 1 human carcinogen, and it [00:03:00] also contains radioactive elements like uranium and thorium. On top of its dangerous properties, a primary reason coal ash is so dangerous, Both to the environment and people is that for many decades, really, from the beginning of the industrial revolution all the way up until 2015, the federal government did not meaningfully regulate coal ash at all and left regulation to the extent there was any to the states, which allowed it to be disposed of in incredibly irresponsible ways, leaving people and wildlife exposed to its dangerous constituents. So the vast majority of coal ash generated over all of these decades has been dumped directly into water in what are known as coal ash impoundments or ponds, or alternatively into coal ash landfills, just big holes in the ground with no liners where they’re exposed to the all of the elements. So this means there’s nothing to stop all of these [00:04:00] dangerous toxins and carcinogens from leaking or leaching into nearby waters or groundwater.

Thomas Hynes: That’s terrifying. I’ve been doing a little bit of research about this. I saw that there are different ways to store this. And I get the sense that mixing it with water is actually like the worst way to, to do this. This is like putting it in a lined pit dry is bad, but this is, are there good ways to handle this? Is this, are there better or worse ways? They all, they seem like they’re all bad, but the

Daniel Estrin: the best thing we can do is to stop producing the stuff, right? And we need to stop burning coal for several reasons. One of them is that we really don’t have a good way to manage the waste product that’s produced this coal ash. The only responsible way really to store coal ash to dispose of it. is in a manner that will ensure that it doesn’t come in contact with water that it stays dry and that it isn’t exposed to other elements [00:05:00] either, such as wind, because wind can pick up coal ash dust, which also contains all those same contaminants that I mentioned and transport it into water, into communities where it can be breathed in. So the only way really, to safely dispose of it is in the same way we dispose of other hazardous materials, which is making sure it stays dry, making sure it’s in line, synthetically lined landfills that are also capped so water can’t infiltrate into the coal ash. And that makes it very expensive. Thomas Hynes: And do I have this correctly that it’s not considered hazardous?

Daniel Estrin: It is not treated as a hazardous waste with respect to how the government requires that it be disposed of even though it, has the characteristics of hazardous waste. So this is an anomaly in the way our government has treated this waste stream and several others [00:06:00] where it’s almost like a too big to regulate approach or too expensive to regulate. And this gets into all kinds of other policy problems regulatory capture, where you have the government agencies that are supposed to be protecting human health and the environment yielding to the concerns of industry and allowing industry to externalize their production costs which means the rest of society, we, the people have to pay those prices in terms of our health and our environment.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah it’s what do we call that? The externalizing the cleanup costs.

Daniel Estrin: Yeah. Regulatory capture where our regulators are unduly influenced by the industries that they are required by law to be regulated.

Thomas Hynes: So let’s talk a little bit about, , the threat that this poses to communities. It seems like a whole different bear than just the air pollution.

Daniel Estrin: It is. The main concerns here are water and air [00:07:00] pollution. I would first note that the people who face the most significant threats from coal ash exposure, Are the same folks who also face numerous threats from exposure to a wide variety of pollutants because they tend to live in areas with higher concentrations of industrial pollution. We call these communities frontline or fence line communities because people with more resources are typically better able to oppose development of industrial pollution sources near their homes in their neighborhoods. While less affluent people often lack the resources to protect themselves from pollution. So it’s typical to find power plants operating in less affluent areas and neighborhoods in our country where you might also find other pollution sources like factories or concentrated animal feeding operations. Also known as factory farms and exposure to numerous pollution sources, compounds, the health risks these communities face, [00:08:00] and it’s typical to find higher rates of cancer and illness in these communities. As far as the specific threats to communities from coal ash Water pollution is probably the most significant as many of these communities are in rural areas and rely on groundwater as their drinking water source. And there are many instances we’ve found where coal ash disposal sites are not only leaching into underlying groundwater, but where the coal ash is actually in constant contact with groundwater and groundwater like surface water moves underground. Sometimes more slowly than surface water, but but it does flow and move. So once you have those contaminants in groundwater, it can easily contaminate people’s groundwater supplies. And one of the big concerns here is that many of the toxic constituents in coal ash are tasteless and odorless and colorless and invisible to the human eyes. So unless the [00:09:00] water is tested in a certified lab, which is expensive again, and a lot of these folks don’t have the resources there’s really no way for the communities to know that they’re being poisoned by their own drinking water wells. And then as I mentioned earlier, another big problem with coal ash is that and this is. More in the case where it’s landfilled is it often becomes airborne in the wind and gets spread around communities where it can contaminate water, but it also contributes to particulate matter pollution known as PM 2. 5. These fine coal ash dust particles can travel long distances and penetrate deep into the lungs and the bloodstream, causing respiratory and cardiovascular issues. And this is a significant problem as millions of people live within just a few miles of a coal ash disposal site. One other note, and this is this is fairly recent information that we’ve gotten through the federal environmental protection agency [00:10:00] is that coal ash is sometimes used as fill for development projects. Instead of trucking in clean soil the utilities can actually sell coal ash, particularly fly ash to to developers to use as fill in their projects. And this includes housing projects. So you’ll have whole neighborhoods that are constructed. On top of coal ash that’s used as fill and in a recent report, EPA revealed that the risk to those communities from radioactivity and that coal ash is much higher than had previously been appreciated. We are still assessing that. We we recently provided comments to EPA on a rulemaking that it was undergoing relating to to that very important issue and to the need to ensure That this coal ash is not used irresponsibly as fill.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah. You can imagine that there would be a I don’t want to cast judgment on anyone seeking these [00:11:00] opportunities, but there’s probably a lot of people who are saying let’s do something with this product that we have too much of that we can’t do anything with. Let’s try to. Put it in X, Y, and Z. And I wouldn’t want my house built on anywhere near coal hash. It sounds terrible. And I’m, claiming ignorance. I knew all of the issues with it. When you saying radioactive, that part hadn’t occurred to me as if it wasn’t bad enough, you throw radioactive in there as well. And it’s just it’s frightening, terrible stuff. And also just really terrifying. I know I said it already, but that it’s odorless and tasteless. So it sounds like. You only know what’s happening once you have these adverse health effects. It’s almost when it’s too late is when you can really detect it. Am I right in saying that?

Daniel Estrin: Yeah, that’s generally true. The other possibility, and this has certainly happened is groups like Waterkeeper Alliance or our partners or our river keepers that are located near a power plant that a coal burning power plant may do some sampling can do groundwater [00:12:00] testing and, if it determines that there’s groundwater contamination, we would certainly notify the the neighbors of the need to have their water tested get the local health department involved. But if there’s not someone who’s testing the water and checking to see the the extent of contamination people can wind up drinking contaminated water for years without knowing it.

Thomas Hynes: Oh my God, that’s really terrifying. So this has been very helpful and for me, and I hope for our listeners in understanding. What this threat is, what the situation is and how it’s so dangerous and so many different ways. Can we talk a little bit more about Waterkeeper Alliance’s role in this fight? And I specifically want to talk about a case a couple of years ago that I know you worked on a little bit, not entirely. But can you talk us through I believe it was with Duke Energy and it was in North Carolina. Is that right?

Daniel Estrin: Yes. So our Waterkeeper Alliance’s work on coal ash issues goes back to around [00:13:00] 2010. We had a campaign at that time known as the clean coal is a dirty lie. This was at a time when the utility industry was pushing the idea of clean coal. And there are so many reasons that that term is just Dirty lie is a dirty lie. Exactly. We were working in that campaign and working with many of our local waterkeeper groups, which include, river keepers, lake keepers, stream keepers and North Carolina was particularly problematic and Duke Energy’s disposal of coal ash around the state where it was storing this dangerous waste in or near water bodies, streams, rivers and lakes and and became a real significant problem. We were advocating with some of our partner groups Going all the way back to 2011 or 2012 advocating that EPA needed to promulgate a regulation to regulate coal ash, which the federal government had [00:14:00] never done. And as part of that effort, we became aware of of what was going on in North Carolina and how irresponsibly Duke Energy had been had been acting for many years. Then in 2014 was a really infamous disaster known as the Dan River coal ash spill in which Duke Energy , through real criminal Behavior for which it was prosecuted and pleaded guilty to crimes, which is quite unusual for environmental violations that they are prosecuted as crimes, spilled an enormous amount of coal ash into the Dan River, and it wasn’t a typical accident. This was as a result of real irresponsible behavior failure to maintain They’re a dam and the plumbing, so to speak, by which they moved materials around at that site and it caused an enormous amount of contamination. And it was a real [00:15:00] ecological disaster. And very quickly after that happened, Waterkeeper Alliance is really We’re known for many things, but one of them is the utilization of aircraft to monitor environmental disasters to monitor compliance to look for violations. And we got up in the air very quickly. When news of that disaster broke and we did an amazing job documenting the spill And getting on the ground in the water testing for all the metals and everything that were spilled into the dan river and it made an enormous amount of news we got national coverage, for our video that we captured and i’m really convinced that Public awareness that arose from that spill, as well as some other earlier ones that were real disasters including the largest one in history that happened in Tennessee in 2008 really were the impetus for us finally getting a federal regulation in [00:16:00] 2015 that That had problems and that we sued to challenge because it was too weak but the work we did in North Carolina really, I think created the foundation for federal rulemaking that we’ve seen occurring over these last several years It also led to a huge amount of scrutiny for Duke energy. Again, they pled guilty to many criminal counts. I believe they had over a hundred million dollar criminal penalty. And so that brought a lot of attention to Duke Energy’s mismanagement of coal ash and put a spotlight on the state of North Carolina and how it had allowed Duke Energy to get away with that mismanagement for so many years. We brought our own litigation against Duke Energy. The state of North Carolina then brought litigation against Duke Energy in which we intervened along with Some of our partner groups and that all ultimately led to a huge settlement with Duke Energy [00:17:00] in 2019, in which Duke Energy agreed to clean up pretty much all of of its Coal ash impoundments where it had stored coal ash in ponds or impoundments in water, basically. So they’re removing over a hundred million tons of coal ash to safe dry storage. It’s going to be, it’s a many year project, but they’re making good progress. It’s going to cost them billions of dollars by the time they’re done. But it’s a a really good result where a lot of the work we and our partners did ultimately pushed the government to act and and the settlement included both the state of North Carolina Waterkeeper Alliance and partner groups and Duke Energy that resolved many of the legal disputes that we were involved in for several years.

Thomas Hynes: That’s amazing. I remember reading about I think it was Kingston, Tennessee in 2008, which I know is not what we’re talking about. That was the first big one. And I heard I want to say it was a lawyer spokesperson was against this, not for [00:18:00] the coal company saying that the combustion and the burning is using 21st century techniques. And the storage is using 8th century techniques. It’s, it most like haphazard sloppy way to deal with this, like obviously dangerous thing. So with that in mind since waterkeeper alliances judgment and this case, these charges against Duke energy has the industry changed, is obviously still a threat. Coal in any form is still a threat, but can you point to any noticeable shifts in the industry or practices or behaviors?

Daniel Estrin: Yes. And a lot of that is a result of the federal rulemaking I mentioned. In 2015, EPA finally issued what it calls the CCR rule, coal combustion residuals rule, which was intended to begin to regulate the industry and how it disposes of and manages coal ash. And require it to clean up some of these sites. A big [00:19:00] problem with that rule is that it had gaping holes in it that allowed for a lot of coal ash disposed around the country to be left in place. And much of this coal ash is literally sitting in groundwater. So it’s just continuously leaching these metals and contaminants into that ground water and not containing it in any way. So we, along with. Partners, and I’d be remiss not to mention Earth Justice and Southern Environmental Law Center and the Environmental Integrity Project and our other partners who we’ve worked so closely with over these many years. SU DPA to challenge that rule. And we we won that lawsuit and in the DC circuit and the DC circuit remanded the rule to EPA, which, worked on it for many years. We have the Trump administration, which sort of tried to make it even weaker, but they were dealing with the fact that we had this precedent from the DC circuit that made it difficult for them to make an [00:20:00] already too weak rule, even weaker. And then just within the last two months the Biden EPA issued several power plant rules, including a new, And updated CCR rule new coal ash rule. That’s much, much stronger and that we’re much happier with than we were with the previous rule. The agency has addressed the weaknesses that we identified and that the DC circuit agreed with. But it’s really those regulations that are going to drive industry to make the changes you’re talking about because they have no choice. But I will say that, a 100 million criminal penalty against Duke Energy that will also raise eyebrows and civil litigation brought under citizen supervisions will also leave industry realizing they’re legally and financially vulnerable. So we have seen a shift between the rulemakings and the legal aspects. Where industry [00:21:00] does seem to be accepting that they’re going to have to clean this stuff up. And so we see for example Alabama Power which had been really refusing, claiming that it was going to leave the coal ash in place. Just within the last several months has had a change in position. Part of that I think is driven by the fact that our Mobile Baykeeper brought litigation against them. Where now they are saying they’re going to excavate the coal ash that they have stored on their site in mobile. We see this happening where the companies seem to be getting a little more ahead of the issue, realizing that they’re going to need to do this, and we’d rather do it before we get sued than after. But it is still much too slow in happening, and we also know that Some of these industry players are still being recalcitrant. I mentioned the new rule that EPA just promulgated and we just last week got word of the first lawsuit filed [00:22:00] by a power company to challenge that rule. We expect there will be more. And so this is an ongoing story. We’re going, we intend to potentially intervene in those litigations. To defend EPA’s new rule, which we think is absolutely necessary. From attacks by industry players and trade associations that are trying to keep industry from having to spend money cleaning up this mess.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah. It sounds like you said, there’s been some great progress and there’s some better rules. There’s some great progress here, but a hundred million tons a year annually. This is definitely still ongoing. Thank you so much for being with us here today. It’s been great getting this insight from you on this huge and awful problem. So thank you so much.

Daniel Estrin: My pleasure, Tom. Good to be with you. And thanks for helping to get the word out.

Thomas Hynes: Our next guest is Brandon Jones, the Catawba Riverkeeper in North Carolina. Brandon, thank you so much for joining us here today. Why don’t you tell our audience a little bit about who you are, where you are, and what you [00:23:00] do.

Brandon Jones: Yeah. Thanks for having me. As you said, I am the Catawba Riverkeeper. The Catawba watershed straddles North and South Carolina and the Piedmont. We actually started up in the mountains near the beautiful Linville Gorge, flow from the mountains in the Piedmont through a few large metropolitan areas. Most people probably know Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s our largest city in the state of North Carolina and in the watershed as well. And we flow into South Carolina and go all the way down to Concord National Park. So we’ve got waterfalls and alligators. It’s about 5, 000 square miles. It’s a pretty large watershed and very diverse.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah, I should say so. Waterfalls and alligators is a pretty good way to sum it up. I’m in New York and we only have alligators in our sewers. Tell me what being the Catawba Riverkeeper entails.

Brandon Jones: Sure. So I’m the lead advocate and scientist for this watershed. And I’m actually fortunate enough to manage a team of staff scientists. But I lead our organization’s efforts to try and preserve and protect and restore the watershed. So every day is a little [00:24:00] bit different, some days we’re involved in litigation we’re collecting samples, we’re doing a lot of education. We’re getting out in the community and just trying to get people on the water. It’s really, however we think we can be most effective in restoring this waterway.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah. And speaking of that I’m sure there are a lot of threats and challenges and a lot of things that keep you up at night as there are for every river keeper. But for this, I want to talk a little bit more about the situation with Duke Energy and the coal ash spill. We were talking to Dan Estrin earlier in the episode about just the real dangers of coal ash and just speaking for myself who’s more of a civilian in this, like it just is you think of coal combustion as being so dangerous and just to learn that it has this whole other second life as this huge waste stream and, Just toxic byproduct. But tell me what was happening with Duke energy in your community.

Brandon Jones: Yeah, the coal ash story, I think, For most of us really starts back [00:25:00] in, December of 2008. That’s where it really comes on the map. And then, the EPA goes through and they label, which of these facilities are high hazard after that. And of course, like, all of ours are. So we’ve got the Marshall facility on Lake Norman, the Mountain Island, a riverbed facility on Mountain Island Lake, which is the drinking water reservoir for basically all of Charlotte. We had another 1 right beside Charlotte on Lake Wiley, and then a 4th, 1 down on the watery river.

Thomas Hynes: And right. So you had one right on the, it’s insane to me. What right next to the drinking water supply for Charlotte and how many people live in Charlotte?

Brandon Jones: It’s about a 1. 5 million people use that as drinking water and about a million people in Charlotte.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah, that’s insane.

Brandon Jones: Yeah. So that was the big fight. This is before my time. I’ve been Riverkeeper for seven years now or so, but we actually filed this back in 2000, sorry, I guess 2012 is when we filed our initial one, our initial cleanup lawsuit with the Southern Environmental Law Center. So yeah, this was happening all over the Southeast. I think everybody was really becoming [00:26:00] aware of it. At the clink Singston incident we actually started our lawsuit in the South Carolina portion against Santee Cooper. They actually settled that, within about I think it’s about 12 months and then we took the fight to Duke energy in Charlotte. And that is the one that drug on for almost a decade. And so that was a very long and arduous process. I was fortunate enough to come in during just the last year of it. And push us over the finish line, but I’m extremely proud of the work that the organization did and getting that settled.

Thomas Hynes: Now, was this a situation where you, was there a spill or was there something where you’re like, this is just a ticking time bomb and we need to take care of this.

Brandon Jones: Yeah. More of the latter. There have been small kind of micro leases that have been found and there’s always just a little bit of ash in the sediment, just things that have settled out. But. It was more of the threat and so as part of the high hazards and as part of North Carolina passing the CAMA, the Collage Management Act, they had to do some modeling and basically show like what would happen if there was a breach at one of these facilities, similar to Kingston, and it would have been fairly catastrophic. So [00:27:00] that was the big issue for us is that even though we’re not finding these contaminants in the water directly at that facility, we need to get this out. The other side of it was particularly at the the facility on Wiley, the Allen steam station. There were houses right up against the coal ash pits and these restored in water and so they were pushing out into the groundwater and there were numerous homes that had high levels of , vanadium, boron other types of heavy metals associated with coal ash in their drinking water. And then they were told by the state toxicologist, they shouldn’t drink their water. And then that person was fired and somebody else told them they should drink their water and somebody else told them they shouldn’t. And then they were on bottled water for over three years Trying to settle with Duke to get city water put into their homes. And so that was, one of the worst parts of this was that, they weren’t able to drink their water safely and then they were just, living off bottled water in Belmont, 15 minutes from Charlotte, major metropolitan area. It was just completely ridiculous.

Thomas Hynes: [00:28:00] Yeah, that’s crazy. And I think about this through a parenting lens now all the time. I have a three year old, but Like just does enough to do it for yourself and enough of a pain and enough of a hazard. But then you bring in kids and trying to take care of your family. It’s just awful. And there was a spill in the Dan River, right? Is that near where you are?

Brandon Jones: Yes. Yeah. So that led to the state, I think, really acting a bit more quickly. The fight wasn’t just with the Duke Energy. It was also with the state of North Carolina trying to step in and slow down our case. And so the Dan River spill, I think, really kicked it. And then there was another spill on the Cape Fear as Florence hit. We were very fortunate previous riverkeeper, Sam Perkins actually found a leaky pipe, very similar to the one that failed at the Dan River that you could actually lost track of. Luckily again, we didn’t have a spill there, but that it was very concerning to have all these major pits directly beside our drinking water reservoirs that was just a huge risk.

Thomas Hynes: So tell me a little bit more about that risk. Obviously it seems like I don’t want coal [00:29:00] ash and for the little I know about it, I don’t want it anywhere ideally, but I certainly don’t want it near my drinking water supply. And I’m not a bottled water guy. I’m, New York city, we’d pride ourselves on our tap water. And I just, we’ve got enough to worry about. We don’t want to worry about our tap being poison. But tell me, describe for me and our listeners, like How that contamination or what that risk is. Brandon: Sure. So there’s, in coal, the main thing that we want is the carbon, right? We burn it releases the energy. The CO2 goes up that has its own issues, but less of an issue for a water activist. But there’s other things in there, so heavy metals, selenium, arsenic, boron, radium 226 can be a variety of carcinogens. Those are then concentrated in the ash, and our ash has been traditionally stored in unlined pits, and those pits are going to be as close as possible to the plants, because it’s a lot of material. It’s expensive to move those plants have to be located near water supplies or water, large water reservoirs because they need to pull that water [00:30:00] to produce the steam to produce electricity. And so all across the country, really, you see these large unlined pits of ash, which contains concentrated amounts of these materials. Beside where we have to pull the water for, large cities as well as the rain falls through, or as they bring in water to actually keep the stuff from blowing out, it will pull some of those materials and leach them out. And so it can leach through the aquifer into either the groundwater, if you’re living right there, or into the reservoir. We were very fortunate here. We’ve got pretty good soil for this. We got a lot of clays. So things don’t move super fast. And so even though low levels of these carcinogens were moving into the reservoirs, they were essentially diluted so much that we weren’t really able to detect them in the main water. And so at that time, our drinking water was still passing all the standards. We weren’t getting any hits. But the groundwater on site, we Was it and is still extremely contaminated is not safe for consumption [00:31:00] and that was going into some of the neighbors properties as well

Thomas Hynes: That’s like a well water situation

Brandon Jones: Exactly. Yeah, so a lot of the neighbors have these facilities at that time We’re still on well water and they were getting some of those hits of typically vanadium hexavalent chromium boron Yeah.

Thomas Hynes: These names sound like comic book villains. They sound very daunting and awful and not like anything I want to read that’s in my water. And I’m just thinking about the members of your community and getting a notice one day that, Hey, this is happening. You can’t even really move, right? Because who’s going to buy your property if the water is contaminated? You’re trapped, right?

Brandon Jones: Exactly. Exactly. We were fortunate, at least in the Belmont case that they were fairly close to city water. It wasn’t like a thing where they couldn’t get, a different water supply. But he was going to pay for that. Yeah. And so that was the real big fight, like inevitably, like they were going to get city water run out there. But was Duke going to pay for it? Was the city going to pay for it? Were the residents going to pay for it? And while they were dealing with that, they were stuck drinking [00:32:00] bottled water again for three years.

Thomas Hynes: That’s insane. Who did pay for it?

Brandon Jones: Duke did pay for it as, as part of a settlement, but It was a very long and arduous process, but yeah special thanks as always to Amy Brown for kind of leading that charge from the resident side. She did an absolute tremendous job with a lot of her fellow citizens and advocating for themselves.

Thomas Hynes: That’s just so demoralizing. Not that part, but just the three years of bottled water and just all the plastic waste. Another, it’s a side thing, but and just brushing your teeth and I mean everything, it’s just…

Brandon Jones: when you’re worried about your kids getting cancer, you’re less worried about. Plastic waste for sure. But no, absolutely.

Thomas Hynes: No, but not even like just even in personally just being like, I got all these empty bottles in my house. Yes, the downstream effects of it for sure. And you’re absolutely right. Whatever you need to do to protect your kids. We’ve talked a little bit about the science, like what is the feeling in the community of having these, and correct me if I’m wrong, calling them ticking time bombs. What is this? Impact on the community.

Brandon Jones: Yeah. It’s like most things, I think for [00:33:00] the people that are right beside it, it’s the thing they think about all the time it’s in the presence of mine. It’s their most concerned about, but for other residents that don’t live right beside these facilities, I don’t think that most people thought about them at all. That’s how our society works. And we don’t usually think about where our water comes from, where it goes when we flush, where our food comes from even. And so until the Dan river spill, really, most people saw Kingston, maybe got scared for a little bit. They’re like, Oh, that wouldn’t happen here. We did some damn safety analysis. We’re fine. And that was really the line from Raleigh and from Duke that, Hey, this could never happen again. We’re safe. We’re good to go. And then Dan river happens. And then Florence happened. And I think between those and, the major flooding that we saw in South Carolina in 2015, there’s been enough, big disasters around here to be like, okay We really have to do something now. So for the people that live right beside it, it was Part of their everyday lives and I think one of the big fights of you know our organization Was really just trying to keep this in the news [00:34:00] keep this front of mind and remember that this is still a thing We still have to fix this And it will eventually be the largest industrial cleanup in American history.

Thomas Hynes: So let’s talk about that a little bit. And I want to back up just a little bit. The way I want to, I guess the question I have is why was it important to take Duke to court? You talk about some people who will give them bottled water we’ll connect them to city municipal lines we’ll like put out that fire. But why was it important to go a step further and yeah, bring the, the law into this. Brandon: Duke Energy is a publicly traded company Their job is to supply power at the cheapest rate with the greatest profit Excavating this coal ash, moving it to line storage is extremely expensive. This is not going to be the cheapest way to store their waste. And so they weren’t going to just do this, just because it was more protective of the environment. Unless they were required to do and so that’s where our organization really stepped in with the help of Southern Environmental Law Center and a huge [00:35:00] coalition, I should say of other nonprofits and citizen groups. This was a major fight for many years with a lot of people coming in and out. But it takes a village. This is one of the largest employers in Charlotte. The governor at the time was a previous employee of Duke Energy. It was extremely challenging case. So I think we filed about eight, nine years before we settled. Yeah.

Thomas Hynes: And this is like a, this is an aside, but this is a huge success, right? This is a huge success and it still took nearly a decade. And all that time of, Vulnerability and exposure and everything else.

Brandon Jones: Yeah. That’s unfortunately what we see often in this job is that’s the pace of progress. It really does take a long time. If you’re going to get a litigation route, it can take a very long time. And we could not do that work again without groups like Southern Environmental Law Center. We certainly can’t afford to be in court for eight or nine years. Yeah. That only works if you have pro bono representation. And yeah, I think eventually the cost of the court case [00:36:00] for Duke, in addition to these major sightings and some actual good cases from the Supreme Court that the Maui decision in particular really led to this settlement happening. Duke finally did agree to excavate almost all of the coal ash and move it to line storage. And they had already required for new ash I think since 2018 or so based on some EPA rulings to, to move that to lines or to start putting it in line storage. But the big lift now is, digging at 50, 60 years of old ash. And the volume is really hard to even comprehend. So we’re talking about millions, like 150 million tons. So if you think of a normal NFL stadium that about that size footprint, like the entire stadium, not just the field and you fill it up with ash volumetrically, you’re getting to about 25, 000 feet. Oh, it’s a, Yeah.

Thomas Hynes: So how many stadiums are we talking?

Brandon Jones: I didn’t do that. I should have done that math. That’d been better. I was like, yeah, basically you take the footprint [00:37:00] of a stadium and just make that cylinder go up to the height of planes. And that’s about the volume of ash that they’re excavating statewide. It’s very difficult to even comprehend.

Thomas Hynes: That is, yeah, that’s good.

Brandon Jones: It’s going to take a while. The project is ongoing. They’ve got until I think 2037. And they’re probably going to need most of that time.

Thomas Hynes: Wow. And is all the settlement going towards the cleanup or is there any other like remediation funds or, that sounds like the cleanup is enough of a, Brandon: The settlement is the cleanup, so they are excavating all the ash, they’re moving it to line storage, but then it’s, it’s still hazardous, it’s just a landfill now, it’s not leaching. But they’ll have to monitor that essentially in perpetuity, just like a landfill. So it will still have once it’s capped, the leachate will be minimized. They’ll pump it out. But, I think in our settlement, we still get to see some of those results until I think 2070 or so. So this will be a project well, past my time.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah. It sounds like it. And so you answered my next question was what is being [00:38:00] done to prevent this in the future. It sounds like they’re capping it and monitoring it.

Brandon Jones: They’re capping it. They’re monitoring. But I think the biggest, force here is just the economics. Coal is really just not now that some of those costs have been, costs that was originally externalized into the environment have now been put back into the price of coal. It’s just not really viable, even from a combustion perspective, like their natural gas is just cheaper for Duke. And so all the new facilities that they’re building are natural gas facilities now, and they’re looking at nuclear, they’re ramping up solar. We don’t have a ton of wind in our area. Obviously the hydro is capped out. There’s one or two actual new hydro projects some pump and storage that they’re still building. But coal is certainly the past and just doesn’t really make sense anymore.

Thomas Hynes: I’m so happy to hear that. And I never thought about it really with economics that when, because I do think about external costs and corporate social responsibility a lot. I don’t know why I think about it a lot, but I do because it annoys me. I think it [00:39:00] bothers me that. Even in New York City with Amazon, it’s Oh you’ll take care of the packaging that we’d send in all this huge volume to your street sidewalks where there’s no space. But this is obviously way more toxic and dangerous. And I like that playing field. Maybe that’s not the right way to say it, but internalizing that cost, bringing that cost back where it belongs because it doesn’t belong to me and you and to the community. That’s great to see that economics shift because that really, in my sort of jaded opinion is the only way things really move is with money. So we’re talking about what’s being done. I don’t know if you have an answer to this, but what would you like to see done in the future with this? Brandon: these are big hills of coal ash. So I don’t know where the technology is going to go. In the short term, you could just cover that hill with solar panels and there’s, that’s been done in some places. It’s not a huge area, but it’s enough to generate some, they already have all the transmission lines set up to these areas. And so that’s one of the biggest, most expensive things. So I think that Duke is going to [00:40:00] maintain these properties and they’re going to look for ways to use them in the future. Whether that’s solar, whether that’s some kind of small pump and storage, whether that’s, small nuclear, I don’t really know how that’s going to go, but the transmission network is already there. And so being able to utilize that is probably in our society’s best interest. But again, that’s not really my focus as Riverkeeper, the other kind of weird caveat to this is that we still need coal ash for cement. And so it’s the quality of it there really isn’t worth it right now. It’s got too much carbon left in it. They’d have to reburn it to recycle it and to cement and some of the ash actually does have some radioactive properties at the Marshall facility. So you wouldn’t want to use that ash. But there’s a possibility that in the future, this could actually be mined. And reused beneficially. But again, in the short term and probably my 10 years as river keeper, I don’t think the economics will work on that. But I would expect that Duke will most likely try to use these sites [00:41:00] because of their transmission capabilities, maybe a solar wind or some other type of generation. For the Marshall facility, they’re already planning to switch it to natural gas which of course has its own problems. We don’t have fracking in my watershed, thankfully but I’m very aware that, there’s not a free lunch here and that, we’re going to have to make some trade offs.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah, that’s the the guy the secretary general of the UN, I always quote this I think it’s like the era of good choices is over. So tell me what’s next for Catawba riverkeeper. I know that the coal ash hasn’t gone away, but there’s been this massive settlement. The company has agreed to at least partially do the right thing. What’s next? Brandon: Yeah. So Coal Ash has been the the big push for over a decade. This was our organization’s basically entire existence. This is all we did. Like we hired a lawyer, executive director, we hired a river keeper that was really good at communications. Like we. Went all the way in on Coalash and that was our existence for almost a decade. And so coming out of that, it was like, once we settled, okay what do we [00:42:00] want to be when we grow up? And we went through this period of, okay, now that we don’t have to work on Coalash what else have we been ignoring? What should be, we working on what should the organization pivot to? And, we’re excited to look at other parts of the basin. We’ve been heavily focused really on this one area. And so having the opportunity to look at other things, we’ve really leaned into restoration. That’s been our new push and where we think we can make the most difference.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah. And I think, it’s interesting about what you said is that, There’s so much frustrating about pollution and bad actors. It is that that stealing of attention, right? I mean that when someone is lighting the house on fire or has a ticking time bomb, that’s the metaphor we’re using. You have to do everything you can to defuse that bomb. You can’t really work on some other really worthy projects. And I think that’s It’s a minor theft and a minor transgression in the big picture of all the terrible things that some of these bad actors are doing, but it’s not insignificant, right? So it’s great that you were at least now a little bit freed up to [00:43:00] do some other things. That’s another reason why these terrible companies need to stop what they’re doing.

Brandon Jones: Yeah. So for us, restoration, we really had to think carefully about that. We’re not an engineering company. We are not going to go in there and try and get grants to get a bunch of track codes, come through and do some kind of stage zero, like full stream restoration, , anything like that. we have a lot of volunteers. One of our most successful programs is River Sweep, where we partner with tons of local organizations to go out on one day and we pull out, roughly 40 to 50, 000 pounds of trash in one day. Most of that is, plastic and tires, a lot of plastic and tires in the water. But that’s an important part of restoration and we have seen that each year that we’ve done that we get a little bit less trash and per person per hour. And so it is actually getting a little bit hard to find. There’s maybe more plastic and less of the kind of legacy trash, glass, metal and tires and appliances. We don’t find this many of those thankfully anymore in the rivers. But it’s still a big part of our work. So leaning into other types of cleanups. So [00:44:00] we do tactical cleanups. Now we go out to harder to reach places that we really haven’t really get to with volunteers in the past. We’ve started to look at other types of, high labor, low specialization. So beaver dam analogs are a really interesting strategy. That’s been successful out West where you essentially build little fake beaver dams and areas that you want to restore. and you have beavers come in and create wetlands and there’s wetlands, we used to the entire Southeast and especially the Piedmont used to be covered in these beaver complexes. And then they were essentially hunted to extinction, and then, slowly reintroduced in the 50s. And they’re still coming back. But that ecosystem is critical to hold our sediment. To provide ecosystem services that wetlands do as we lose them. Enticing beavers to come to specific areas that aren’t going to mess with infrastructure Is another thing that volunteers can do, and we’ve got some species of special concern, like the rocket shell spire lily, which are really stuck in one area between two like large [00:45:00] reservoirs, and there can’t naturally propagate up and downstream. And shepherding those seeds around to areas that they would have historically been able to survive. We’ve got some new areas that are now actually open that have been dewatered for the last century that we now have minimum flows on. And so trying to restore those areas, you know, that’s something that It’s probably not going to entice a large engineering company. It’s not a lot of money in it. Um, but that’s something that, that volunteers get really excited about. And our staff is really excited to do.

Thomas Hynes: That’s awesome. I could do a whole other half an hour on beavers alone. They’re so amazing. They really are so incredible. But with that in mind, Brandon, I don’t want to take up any more of your time. This has been so great talking to you today. And, just as a citizen of the world, thank you so much for your work holding polluters accountable, and also working to restore all of these natural areas. It’s really so great. And I say this all the time, the best part of my job is getting to talk to river keepers. So thank you so much for being here today.

Brandon Jones: Yeah. Thanks for having [00:46:00] me. ​