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SMOKE AND MIRRORS Coal Ash By Kemp Bu r d e t t e Coal has been used to generate electricity since the late 1800s. The United States depended on this fossil fuel increasingly through the 20th century, but over the last ten years this trend reversed. In 2014, roughly 39 percent of the electricity generated in the United States came from burning coal, down from more than 50 percent in 2003. It is likely that this number will continue to fall due, in part, to the increase in natural gas production from hydraulic frac-turing, or fracking, that is gradually replacing coal as a fuel source for power plants across the country. Coal is a fossil fuel, a non-renewable source of power like oil and natural gas. When coal is burned to produce power it leaves behind significant amounts of waste known as coal combustion residuals, more commonly known as coal ash. Coal ash contains a wide array of heavy metals including many dangerous toxins. Through the combustion process, these metals become highly concentrated in coal ash. For decades, power companies have used water to flush the coal ash out of power plants, piping the slurry into massive open, unlined, storage ponds near the power plants. These ponds are almost universally situated next to rivers, lakes and streams that receive discharges of excess wastewater from the ponds. In North Carolina there are 37 coal ash ponds at 14 retired, converted or active coal plants operated by Duke Energy. All of these ponds are near waterways, including two on the banks of the Cape Fear River: the L.V. Sutton Plant next to Sutton Lake in New Hanover County, and the Cape Fear Plant in Chatham County where the Deep and Haw Rivers converge to form the Cape Fear River. Coal ash contains a number of heavy metals including arsenic, mercury, chromium, vanadium, boron, selenium, thallium, lead, cadmium, iron and manganese, among others. When coal ash is stored in open, unlined ponds, as is the common practice, these materials move into the environment when they come into contact with air or water. Dust from the disposal areas can also blow into nearby communities, a potential public health hazard. Heavy met-als and toxins in coal ash seep into groundwater beneath and near coal ash ponds and are directly discharged into nearby waterways when the ponds fill to capacity. In 2013, Cape Fear River Watch, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Sierra Club, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed lawsuits under the Clean Water Act against Duke 43 Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton Plant, the coal ash ponds, Sutton Lake and the Cape Fear River, November 2, 2013. PHOTO BY ALAN CRADICK. FLIGHT PROVIDED BY SOUTHWINGS. www.wrightsvillebeachmagazine.com WBM


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