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World Water Day spotlights coal-ash contamination in local ponds, rivers 

This year, the United Nations-sponsored event focuses on access to food

On Sept. 14, 2010, two women entered a public hearing on coal ash in Charlotte bearing stories and gifts they made for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As the women offered their gifts — one a jar of water and another some homemade ginger-cinnamon syrup — the EPA staffers recoiled.

Anne Pringle, from South Carolina, and Elisa Young, from Ohio, didn't know each other before the EPA's coal-ash hearing, one of only eight held throughout the country ever. But their stories are similar. They live near coal-ash disposal sites, the people in their communities are sick, and they're worried about the water they bathe in and put on their gardens and into their family's mouths.

World Water Day has been held on March 22 since 1993, and each year, the United Nations-sponsored event has a different theme. This year, the international focus is on access to food. Locally, the focus is on coal ash. David Merryman, the Catawba Riverkeeper who resigned Wednesday, March 14, to become an environmental scientist in Maryland, said he's using that day to raise awareness about coal ash by encouraging citizens to convince their legislators to move forward on regulations.

There is more coal ash generated than any other type of waste besides that created by mining. That makes coal ash the second-largest waste stream in the United States. It's often stored in slurry ponds — like the four unlined coal-ash ponds on the Catawba River near Charlotte owned by Duke Energy Corp. Those ponds drain into the Catawba, with two of them — behind the Charlotte-based company's Riverbend Steam Station coal plant — directly upstream from the spot where Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities withdrawals water that eventually flows through the city's pipes. The state has issued fish advisories for the river, and Duke University scientists have detected arsenic and strontium, a radioactive element, in the river's sediment — something no level of government monitors.

The EPA has debated regulating the waste for more than 30 years. Even though it promised to regulate coal ash by the end of 2009, it has only held those eight hearings and gathered comments from industry insiders and the public. Last fall, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that could prevent the EPA from regulating coal ash at all. That bill is languishing in the Senate.

Donna Rancour Keiser lives so close to a Progress Energy Inc. coal plant near Asheville that she can see its coal-ash ponds. She recently showed an area television station some of the produce from her garden. "I had all of these mutated vegetables," she told WLOS' viewers. "The radishes were just extreme."

On the coastline of Mountain Island Lake, signs warn against eating its fish. That's the dammed lake on the Catawba where Riverbend's coal-ash ponds drain and where Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities gets 80 percent of the area's drinking water. The state advises that people — especially children, pregnant women and those with health issues — avoid certain fish because of mercury contamination. But on any decent-weathered day, people fish for dinner along its shores.

Mecklenburg County began testing the lake's water more frequently after the Tennessee Valley Authority coal-ash disaster in December 2008, when more than a billion gallons broke through an earthen dam and smothered about 300 acres, including two rivers. That same month, Duke Energy installed sampling wells at Riverbend — eight years after telling the EPA it would. In 2009, the state asked the company to install more wells. What the samples from those wells indicate is that the groundwater beneath the ponds — and beneath every such site in North Carolina — is contaminated, some beyond state standards.

The companies that own the plants and the ponds have not been charged with any wrongdoing or fined, even in cases where the contamination exceeds state standards. Until the state knows for sure that those exceedances aren't blips and until they have "definitive proof" that power companies are responsible for the contamination, the agency can't do anything, said Debra Watts, supervisor of the groundwater protection unit at the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Aquifer Protection Agency.

And those power companies will get to decide whether those exceedances are violations, according to a March 12 presentation given by Ted L. Bush, chief of the state's Aquifer Protection Section in the Division of Water Quality.

When asked why the county doesn't test the lake's sediment, Rusty Rozzelle, Mecklenburg County's water- and land-resources director, said, "We had considered it many years ago but haven't sampled it, I think, because..." He paused, then continued: "What will we do if we find something? I think everyone suspects the sediment is contaminated."

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