LUMBERTON — Local residents and representatives of environmental groups said Thursday that stricter regulations need to be included in wastewater and stormwater runoff and drainage permits that Duke Energy is seeking for the site of the former Weatherspoon generating station in Lumberton as a way to protect the Lumber River.
The permits are required as a major step in the excavation and removal of coal ash from the property.
Twelve people addressed the state Department of Environmental Quality during a public hearing at Robeson Communtiy College concerning the permits, with all but one arguing that the two state draft permits do not go far enough in protecting coal ash runoff from the Weatherspoon property into Jacobs Swamp and the Lumber River.
Flooding from recent Hurricane Matthew, speakers said, revealed that coal ash from seepage of the cooling pond on the Weatherspoon site was found present on an adjacent property.
The Weatherspoon plant has been out of service since September 2011, but coal ash pits have remained in unlined ponds adjacent to Jacobs Swamp and the Lumbee River.
Coal ash is the residue remaining after coal is burned to generate electricity. It contains numerous elements that are hazardous to the health of humans and the environment, such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
“We are asking for the most stringent requirements possible,” said Christine Ellis of the South Carolina-based Winyah-Rivers Foundation. “The limits proposed on some of these elements don’t go far enough. We deserve better.”
The remarks by Ellis were echoed by Leslie Griffith, an associate attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the Winyah-Rivers Foundation in legal action being taken against Duke in regards to coal ash issues.
“These permits need to be stronger,” she said.
Hope Taylor and Ericka Faircloth, representatives of Durham-based Clean Water for North Carolina, presented technical evidence to support their concerns about negative impact on the area if strict permit regulations are not adopted and enforced.
The Rev. Mac Legerton, director of the Center for Community Action in Lumberton, told the state officials that the Jacobs Swamp area has always been “vulnerable” to seepage of coal ash from the Weatherspoon property. He called for current leaks to be repaired and permits enacted that will prevent future seepage of coal ash.
“We need to meet state and federal regulations,” he said. “It makes no sense to permit any discharge into these waters.”
Sarah Haithcock, a Rowland resident, told the state officials that she was just a concerned citizen, hopefully representing the concerns of other county residents, about the effects of coal ash on the environment and their health.
“We need to educate people,” she said. “Many don’t know about this.”
Ken Windley, former Robeson County manager, said he was concerned that there are no consequences for violating permit regulations in the draft permits being considered to be issued to Duke.
“If there was no consequences for speeding on I-95, what would that mean?” he said.
And resident Donna Chavis requested that the diversity of Robeson County’s population and the cultural and heritage value of local waters be considered as the state considers the permits.
“The land is sacred to the people here,” she said, referring to the large American Indian population residing in Robeson and adjacent counties.
David McNeill, district manager for Duke Energy, stressed that his company plans to excavate and remove coal ash from Weatherspoon in a safe and efficient manner.
“Finalizing the new wastewater permit is a critical step to advance the ash basin closure process,” he said. “…The new draft permit is part of the renewal process and must be in place in order to proceed with safely closing the ash basin.
“The state permit includes strict standards that ensure people and the environment remain protected, and are consistent with federal guidelines that apply to countless businesses that manage wastewater,” McNeill said.
The state currently is requiring all coal ash to be excavated and removed from the Weatherspoon property by 2028.
Comments from the hearing will now be considered by the state. which is in the process of finalizing the permits.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.