By Michael Futch
LUMBERTON – An emotional Lora Kay Oxendine-Taylor told a small group that she was going to do everything she could to get the word out to Native American communities about the effects of coal ash to the environment and people.
“This upsets me,” she said while standing inside the Osterneck Auditorium of the Robeson County Public Library. “The people out there don’t know about it.-
“This is horrific,” added Oxendine-Taylor, who lives in Clinton but is trying to relocate to Pembroke. “This room should have been packed with people.”
Her sentiment summed up the feeling in the room during the meeting on coal ash removal at the former Weatherspoon Steam Electric plant, no more than 10 miles from the site of this public gathering: Organize in the community and statewide, and get the word out on coal ash, which can contain hazardous materials such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury and selenium.
The 16 people who attended watched a few short films about coal-related pollution. That was followed by a discussion led by organizer Nick Wood of NC Warn, a group that advocates for climate protection through the use of clean energy, and Christine Ellis of the Winyah Rivers Foundation.
“The community needs to demand that the Weatherspoon dam be raised to ‘high hazard,'” Ellis said.
Underground and surface supplies of water could be contaminated by the Duke Energy coal ash site at its unlined waste storage facilities, which are held back by earthen dams.
The coal ash is what’s left over after the burning of coal to produce power at electricity plants.
“Our primary work is challenging Duke Energy,” Wood said of his Durham-based nonprofit organization.
The state’s oversight of Duke’s coal ash dumps has been under intense scrutiny since a huge Feb. 2 spill at one of the company’s facilities in Eden. Nearly 40,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River from that utility’s facility.
The spill prompted an ongoing investigation by the state of all the company’s coal ash pond dams, including the one at Weatherspoon. The 55-acre pond is 35 years old.
Duke ceased its operations at the Weatherspoon plant three years ago.
The Weatherspoon site, one of 14 Duke Energy coal ash facilities in the state, has been deemed “low risk” by the state. State Bill 729, which is also known as the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014, requires the ash to be removed from four of those dumps. The legislation was passed during the summer session of the General Assembly.
The four sites are in Eden, Charlotte, Wilmington and Asheville.
Ellis wondered why the Robeson County site isn’t listed among the priority sites.
“It’s the same situation here as at the Dan River plant,” she said. “We want it cleaned up and moved away from the river and any river.”
A required video review of an inspection of the site led state regulators and personnel with the Land Quality Section for the dam to determine that the spillway system for Weatherspoon’s 1979 coal ash pond dam had “numerous gushers, weepers, drippers and stains,” according to a notice of deficiency from state regulators.
The condition of the dam, the notice said, is “serious enough to justify further engineering study to determine remedial measures.”
The dam removes water from the coal ash. It has since been categorized as an “intermediate hazard” dam, which could mean significant environmental damage to a tributary of the Lumber River should the dam fail.
“This is not a front-burner issue for most people,” one man at the meeting said.
A second meeting on the issue is scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at the library