“I can only use the water coming out of my tap to flush my toilet. That is it”
That was the message Belews Creek resident Andree Davis had for Governor Pat McCrory at a press conference in Walnut Cove last week.
Davis was one of about 30 area people who attended the event at Rising Star Baptist Church to share stories of their struggle against coal ash and ask the governor to come to Stokes County to find out how the issue is impacting those who live next to Duke Enery’s steam station.
Caroline Armijo, a Stokes County native who has fought against the impacts of coal ash for years and helped organize the event, said she was outraged that state officials and Duke Energy were still debating how to deal with the ash impoundment at Belews Creek.
“This is a major crisis, and no one in the governor’s office is willing to see whit it’s like to live in this situation on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “All around us in Stokes County, people of all ages are facing cancer and mysterious illnesses. Brain tumors are common-place. The rate of illnesses and deaths in Stokes County are not normal.”
Armijo said the state was downplaying the impact of chemicals recent water tests have revealed in wells around the steam station.
“We have a list of the levels of chemicals found on the Do Not Drink letters surrounding Belews Creek,” she said. “The three most startling numbers include arsenic at 108 micro-grams per liter, lead at 1,890 micro-grams per liter and iron at 8,500 micro-grams per liter. Imagine what that does to your body to live, eat, breath and sleep surrounded by a mix of arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, radon and the list goes on and on.”
Armijo took issue with reports that McCrory had dinner with Duke Energy executives shortly before the state agreed to settlement which fined the company $7 million for the impact caused by coal ash at all 14 of the its ponds in the state.
“Gov. McCrory, come have dinner with us and see what your collusion with Duke Energy has done to this community,” she said. “Come see what it is like to have to use bottle water for cooking, even for brushing your teeth. If you think the water here is fine then, then we will even let you drink straight from the tap, although I would not recommend it.”
Tracey Edwards, a Walnut Tree resident who has been speaking out against coal ash and fracking for the past year, said she knew many people in the area that had suffered due to coal ash over the years.
“There have been continuous and numerous illnesses including skin lesions and heart attacks associate with living near coal fired plants,” she said. “Belews Creek should be high on the priority list not close to the bottom. Yes it will be expensive to clean up this coal ash, but human life is priceless.
“Gov. McCrory, you had dinner with Duke, not you have an invitation to come dine with me and my community so you can make your decisions based on the people your decisions impact,” she added.
Appalachian Voices spokeswoman Sarah Kellogg said over 40 do-not-drink notices had been issued around the Belews Creek facility.
“We believe that is legislators would come to these communities and talk to these people they would learn there is a staggering amount of health issues here,” she said, noting the the high levels of arsenic, and lead lead found in some well tests were up to 126 times the levels allowed by the federal government.
Rockingham County’s Ira Tilley, who is running as a Republican in the the March primaries for the NC House 91st District seat, said the issue should not be a political battle.
“This is a non-partisan, environmental issue,” he said. “It should never have been made a political issue. I believe our state’s ethical and conduct standard rules for all elected officials need to be updated. The problem is all about money. These folks are taking money from Duke officials to help fund their campaigns. Instead of saying no, they have opened the floodgates even more to take more money and be less accountable to the people then they were before. That is the issue here.”
A spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said the state had taken the lead in dealing with coal ash, noting that several state agencies had worked tirelessly for the past couple of years to develop a clear picture of what, if any, role coal ash has played in elevated levels of substances in wells around the impoundments.
“Due to the aggressive action of the McCrory administration, all coal ash ponds will be closed and the threat of coal ash will be eliminated after more than 60 years of inaction by previous administrations,” said Mike Rusher. “North Carolina has become a national leader in addressing coal ash clean up thanks to Governor McCrory’s leadership. All cleanup decisions are based on the most recent and up to date scientific information to protect the environment and public health.”
Residents share experiences
Davis was one of several residents who live in close proximity to the Belews Creek ash impoundment and have received notices from the state government warning them not drink or wash with their well water.
During the meeting Davis stripped down to a halter top to reveal sores on her arms and back which she claims are a result of the increased levels of manganese found in her water.
“I have not been able to afford to go to a doctor yet,” she said, saying her belief the sores are caused by her well water are based on a process of elimination. “Three years ago I started breaking out. I thought it would clear up, but the more I washed the more I broke out.”
Then Davis’ well pump broke and she had to wash at friends’ houses while she worked to save enough money to fix her pump.
“No more bumps,” she said. “They started clearing up. When I got the pump fixed I said I would try the water. One shower and I broke out all over my chest and arms again. I have them on my scalp, my chest, my thighs. I have them all over my back. I know it is the water.”
Duke Energy acknowledges that Davis’s water contains three times the allowed levels of manganese, but claims the levels are naturally occurring and not a result of the coal ash impoundment.
“We have no indication that Duke Energy plant operations have influenced your well water,” the company told Davis in a letter she received in late October. “Boron and sulfates at certain levels are key indicators of groundwater potentially impacted by coal ash, because the migrate more quickly than other trace amounts. Your well water did not contain these substances at elevated levels.”
The company is currently supplying Davis with bottled water for her “peace of mind while the process continues.”
“I use the water to wash my hands and brush my teeth and for bird baths,” said Davis. “I get two cases every two weeks in gallon jugs. I have to recycle the jugs and break down the boxes. I can’t cook. I am used to cooking, but I can’t wash my vegetables. They expect the gallons of water will take care of it, but you can’t wash turnip greens in that. You need running water to rinse your cabbage. This is the most I have eaten out in my whole life.”
Davis said she moved to the area from the Midwest nine years ago after her father passed away and she needed to take care of his property.
“I hate it here,” she said. “I just want to go back and have city water and trash pick up. I was in the process of selling the property before I found out I had this coal ash thing. Nobody is going to buy it now. I was right there — I was almost home free getting the heck back to Indianapolis with my boys and my grand-babies.”
Elaine and Clarence Malloy, who also live close the ash impoundment had a similar story.
“They said we had six or eight chemicals in the water and for us not to wash with it, not to cook with it, not to drink it,” said Elaine Mallow. “They started sending us gallons of water every so often. I could tell a difference when I started using the bottled water.
“I have lived in Stokes County all my life,” she said. “This water issue is a frightening thing for me. God did not make the earth like this. It was pure clean fresh water and air and I want it to go back to that as soon as possible. Local leaders need to get involved in this. It is a serious thing. If you can’t wash in your water and can’t drink it it is very dangerous.”
Forsyth County resident Henry Fansler agreed, noting that the area’s clean water was historically important.
“When our ancestors came here, they chose to develop where they did because of the springs and the creeks, because of the water quality,” he said. “Today, when you can no longer use the water from your land that is wrong and needs to be corrected.”
Other speakers touched on the history of fly ash that once blew from the Belews Creek smoke stacks before regulations required scrubbers
“We got up and swiped an inch of coal ash off the car before we could go anywhere,” remembered Leslie Bray-Brewer who used to live next to the plant before moving to Danbury. “I raised five children in the shadow of the steam station. The oldest four had continued breathing difficulties. I had neurological issues. Then I moved to Danbury. With my youngest child all of the breathing issues ceased and my health issues cleared up.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.