Echoes of Flint, as North Carolina Water Pollution Is Swept Under the Rug
by Logan Smith, originally published on March 18, 2017
Let me tell you about a community who woke up one day to learn their drinking water had been contaminated with toxic chemicals. Families who have been suffering from mysterious illnesses learn that the water they’ve been drinking day in and day out may be laced with poison. They plead with their Republican governor to do something about the contaminated water, but due to the governor’s business ties he finds it easier to simply ignore the public health crisis in their community. Months go by, and these families are still living off bottled water rather than turn on the faucet and risk lasting harm to their families. Meanwhile, instead of holding anyone accountable, the governor’s Department of Environmental Quality is simply trying to downplay the water contamination.
You probably think I’m referring to Flint, Michigan, but the community I’m talking about is actually in North Carolina. In fact, hundreds of families in more than a dozen communities across the state received “Do Not Drink” notices last year telling them their groundwater has been contaminated by toxic chemicals found in leaking Duke Energy coal ash pits nearby. These families have been living off bottled water for nearly a year, but Gov. Pat McCrory — himself a former Duke Energy employee of nearly 30 years — has refused to publicly acknowledge the public health crisis. Instead, the McCrory administration decided to simply dilute the water quality standards — claiming the previously-unsafe levels of contamination are suddenly safe again.
Amy Brown is a mother of two young boys living in Belmont, a small town just west of Charlotte. After receiving a Do Not Drink notice in the spring of 2015 informing her that her groundwater was laced with cancer-causing industrial chemicals such as hexavalent chromium, it didn’t take long for Amy to connect the dots to the Duke Energy coal ash pond less than 1,000 feet from her home.
“When we turn on the faucet, we turn on fear,” said Amy, who was told not to drink or cook with the contaminated water — but given no information about when the problem would be fixed or what to do in the meantime. After begging, pleading and finally even threatening Duke Energy, the company finally agreed to provide her family with bottled water. But nearly a year later, Amy’s family is still living off bottled water for drinking, cooking, and even brushing their teeth. And in the meantime, her repeated letters to Gov. McCrory about the situation have gone unanswered.
What has the governor been doing instead? Well, last summer he held a secret dinner meeting at his mansion in Raleigh with Duke Energy executives, their attorneys, and state environmental officials. Neither McCrory nor Duke Energy will say what was discussed at the secret meeting — but it just so happens that a short time later, the state reduced Duke Energy’s fine over leaking coal ash pits throughout North Carolina from $25 million for just one site, to $7 million for all 14 sites across the state. Meanwhile, the leaking coal ash pit next to Amy’s house was classified as “low priority” — an accurate description, Amy says, of how Gov. McCrory views her family.
Deb Baker is another Belmont resident who has been living off bottled water for nearly a year. Deb’s husband died in 2008 of a mysterious lung disease at the age of 46, despite being a non-smoker who had been perfectly healthy before they moved to Belmont. As her husband’s condition deteriorated, doctors told her the cause had to be environmental — but the source remained unknown until Deb received her own Do Not Drink notice years later.
“I definitely believe the coal ash had something to do with my husband’s lung disease,” said Deb, adding that some of her neighbors are showing the same symptoms as her husband.
As a registered Republican who voted for McCrory in 2012, Deb thought her governor would be willing to help clean up the coal ash pollution she believes contributed to her husband’s early death. But after her repeated attempts to contact the governor’s office were ignored, Deb is starting to regret helping McCrory become governor.
“I just don’t feel like he’s being very honest,” Deb said about Gov. McCrory’s secret dinner meeting with Duke Energy. “I really don’t feel like he’s on our side.”
Unfortunately, Amy and Deb’s stories are by no means unique. Over 400 families in more than a dozen communities across North Carolina have received these Do Not Drink notices, yet Gov. McCrory still refuses to publicly acknowledge their plight. Just like the tragic situation in Flint, North Carolina’s coal ash crisis is yet another example of a Republican governor putting business over people — and choosing a coverup over a cleanup.