The other night, I lay in bed listening as thunder shook the walls of my apartment and lightning flashed across the sky, as bright as daylight. Was this the hurricane we had been promised? My thoughts drifted back to the week before when the warnings of headlines and meteorologists hung over us like the heavy rain clouds promised to come. Hurricane Florence was approaching, and it would be the worst one in a long time. Sandbags were stockpiled, events were postponed, people were evacuated, and the bread and milk sold out. Baltimore, the city I call home, was promised rain and high winds, up to 130 miles per hour. I was slightly anxious but mostly annoyed that the annual beach camping weekend my friends and I had looked forward to would be canceled, as the national park had closed in anticipation. That weekend dawned bright and sunny, with literally no trace of rain whatsoever. It was almost laughable.
Some, however, were not so lucky. Prior to the hurricane, 10,000 people were evacuated from North Carolina. 1,100 roads are presently closed – with many impassable – and the death toll in the Carolinas and Virginia has since risen to 48. What would those who had survived the storm face when they returned? How long would it take to resurrect their homes? These stories were to come. But, what the larger news media was neglecting to talk about, and still neglects to talk about, is a rising issue affecting North Carolina as a result of the storm that continues to affect public health across the United States.
A growing but not often discussed environmental health hazard: coal-ash ponds. They’re the second-largest industrial waste stream in the United States. Put simply: they’re ponds (or pits) where the toxic waste from coal power plants are stored. Similarly, manure lagoons are lined earthen pits used to hold treated manure (often hog waste). Thanks to Hurricane Florence, in North Carolina, the sheer amount of rain has caused coal-ash ponds and manure lagoons to fill up so rapidly so that they are now at risk of spilling into rivers, drinking water, and recreational water – putting public health in danger.
According to a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility and EarthJustice, coal ash ponds can contain arsenic, lead mercury, cadmium, chromium, and selenium. Exposure to these chemicals can cause cancer or neurological damage, as well as harm or kill local wildlife.
Public awareness of this issue grew in 2008 when a 40-acre coal pond spilled over one billion gallons of coal ash slurry into a nearby river valley, covered 300 acres with sludge, destroyed three homes, and contaminated the nearby Emory and Clinch River. Many of these ash ponds are placed in rural areas where land is available and cheap, often close to power plants producing the waste. Since power plants are often built around low-income communities, when coal ponds and hog-lagoons spill, these communities are the ones that suffer the most. When it comes to environmental health issues and climate change, low-income neighborhoods, especially those where people of color live, are the ones bearing the brunt of the burden.
Hurricane Florence has devastated areas of North Carolina, with over 1.4 million people lacking a functioning water system and, according to power plant, Duke Energy, at least 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash were released during the hurricane flooding in North Carolina. That’s enough ash to fill about 180 dump trucks.
Why has this practice been allowed to continue for so long? You don’t have to look far for the answer. Thanks to conservative denial of climate change and resistance to eradicating fossil fuels, burning coal for energy is still very much in demand. With coal plants and coal-ash dumps lining the United States, there doesn’t seem an end to this practice anytime soon. As for hog-lagoons, North Carolina is the second-largest pork producing state in the United States, just one example of how much we as a nation consume meat. All that manure has to go somewhere.
Spills and leakage have occurred in the past and they will happen again. Belews Creek is a predominantly black community within a mostly white county near the coal plant, Belews Creek Steam Station. This past December, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against the plant on the basis that because it lacked a protective lining, coal ash from the active storage pond was leaking into the groundwater.
Until we start dedicating our time to implementing alternative energy solutions and refusing to support corporations like Duke Energy, we continue to put the health of people living in poverty at risk. It’s time to examine the full picture of what climate change is doing to our minorities, not just the majority.