Health, Water

Drinking Water Pollution in North Carolina

In a world where environmental protection efforts are at a seemingly constant risk of losing funding, it is clear that the federal government holds a lot of power over regulations designed to protect the environment. There has been an apparent lack of government action in regard to environmental regulation, and this is especially obvious in the state of North Carolina. North Carolina has a very real drinking water pollution problem that has left many wondering where the government’s interest lies.

Today, we’ll be examining just how much of a drinking water pollution problem North Carolina is experiencing, what is causing it, and what the government has (or hasn’t) done to combat the issue. It is important now more than ever to remain informed on environmental issues. Unfortunately, North Carolina’s drinking water pollution problem is a great example of a lack of attention to environmental issues.

What’s Happening in North Carolina?

Over the past few years, North Carolina’s state government has mirrored the federal government’s efforts to devalue the importance of environmental protection efforts. This is made abundantly clear by the lack of attention to drinking water pollution in the state. In 2014, after the Dan River Coal Ash Spill, the state began to advise citizens living in close proximity to coal-fired power plants that their drinking water was contaminated. The well water supplied to these areas had been found to contain elevated levels of a carcinogen known as hexavalent chromium and vanadium, another potentially harmful compound. This was, obviously, cause for concern and left many asking what was causing their drinking water to be contaminated.

Considering the fact that many of the locations that had been found to possess polluted drinking water were in close proximity to coal-fired power plants, environmentalists and homeowners alike had a pretty good idea of where to start. It seemed obvious that these power plants were likely the source of the contaminated water. Duke Energy disagreed. Duke Energy is in charge of 14 power plants within the state of North Carolina and adamantly disagreed that their plants were the source of the contamination.

How Do Coal-Fired Plants Cause Water Pollution?

So why do environmentalists argue that Duke Energy’s coal-fired plants are to blame for North Carolina’s water pollution problem? The answer is coal ash. Coal ash, the residue created from the process of burning coal, is known to contain large traces of heavy metals. These heavy metals include carcinogens like hexavalent chromium and vanadium, two compounds found in contaminated drinking water. Environmentalists argue that the way Duke Energy houses coal ash is to blame for water pollution. Coal ash is mixed with water and stored in pits where it is at risk of seeping into the groundwater. So what is Duke Energy’s argument?

Duke Energy points to a study completed by Duke University to provide evidence that their coal-fired plants aren’t to blame. This study reports that hexavalent chromium is a naturally occurring compound, leaving room for doubt that Duke Energy is the verified source of water pollution, though it did find evidence that coal ash was potentially seeping into groundwater. In an action that frustrated homeowners and environmentalists alike, the state’s government sided with Duke Energy’s claims.

Ignoring the Water Pollution Issue

With North Carolina regulators’ decision to side with Duke Energy, there was a slowing of efforts to demand action. Unfortunately, this decision seemed like business as usual when looking back at North Carolina’s apparent inability to hold Duke Energy accountable. When Pat McCrory won 2012’s race for governor, this was especially evident. As a past Duke Energy employee, McCrory was quick to favor industry growth over environmental protection efforts, a fact that discouraged those who acknowledged environmental issues in the state.

As the years went on, efforts to demand change from Duke Energy were mostly fruitless. No matter how citizens tried, regulators seemed to continuously back Duke Energy. Until very recently, there were few regulations that sought to govern the storage of coal ash. With a total of 31 coal ash ponds in North Carolina, there were many chances for coal ash to seep into groundwater and pollute drinking water. Fortunately, it is now a federal law that coal ash ponds with structural issues are closed. Duke has announced plans to close all ponds by the year 2029.

While it is easy to assume that this news signals an end to drinking water pollution in North Carolina, this is not the case. Even now, in 2019, the Wake County Water Quality Division has reported findings of unsafe levels of radon, radium, and uranium in private well water supplies. With this supply being pumped into thousands of homes, this problem has clearly increased in urgency as the years have gone on. Officials state that while the problem is far from new, too many North Carolinians are unaware of the issue.

The Importance of Grassroots Efforts

While North Carolina’s drinking water pollution situation is bleak, hope is not lost. In April 2019, State Rep. Pricey Harrison stated the importance of grassroots efforts when it comes to combating water pollution in the state. According to Harrison, “We just need more grassroots support. It just doesn’t seem there is the urgency we feel is needed.” It’s an unfortunate fact that many of the pending environmental bills in North Carolina will be scrapped, the sheer increase in the number of such bills highlights the growing urgency for environmental protection laws in the state. Even with such bills in place, grassroots efforts are needed to keep things moving forward, as evidenced by the $12 million fine placed on Chemours, a chemical plant that was responsible for the contamination of drinking water in the Cape Fear River. 

When Chemours became subject to significant public outcry and an organized grassroots campaign, the chemical plant was banned from discharging pollutants into the Cape Fear River. Today, the presence of GenX, the chemical found in drinking water, is well below what is considered safe to drink, and this outcome acts as a testament to the power of public concern. The drinking water pollution problem in North Carolina rages on, it is clear that there is so much more to be done. Now more than ever, those impacted by a lack of government intervention should organize and voice their concerns. Only then will environmental protection efforts be taken seriously.