GOLDSBORO, N.C. (WNCN) - Former Vice President Al Gore and Reverend Dr. William Barber kicked off their two-day “Ecological Justice Organizing Tour” on Sunday in Wayne County.
The duo is touring communities across the state that they say have been directly impacted by toxic waste contamination.
“We all need clean air,” Gore said. “We all need clean water. We all need the jobs that can be created in our communities by shifting to solar and wind.”
The pair started their tour on Sunday in Goldsboro.
“North Carolina also doesn't just have to be number one in basketball,” said Barber. “We can be number one in environmental justice.”
In 2014 an underground pipe burst at a Duke Energy steam station, spilling nearly 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in Rockingham County.
“We have the mountains and the ocean,” said Barber. “We have the rivers and the streams, but we won't have those things clean unless we face these issues.”
In 2015 Duke Energy pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act by illegally discharging pollution from coal-ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants. One of those plants is in Goldsboro.
“For the longest, a lot of people were still drinking the water,” said Michael Thomas Carraway, who lives in Goldsboro and helped organize the Down East Coal Ash Coalition. “So, you got all these toxins floating in the water and especially around a plant, a lot of people live off of well water and so drinking, eating, bathing.”
The spill led to North Carolina lawmakers requiring Duke Energy to close all of its coal ash ponds by 2029.
Duke Energy is in the middle a state-ordered cleanup of millions of tons of coal ash stored at the H.F. Lee Coal Plant in Goldsboro. CBS 17 spoke with some people who say they’ve seen the devastation coal ash can cause firsthand.
“I saw the community where roads were blocked off and the devastation and I was like, 'wow they’re not doing nothing',” Carraway said.
Mindy Hodge believes coal ash could be linked to cancer cases in Wayne County.
“If I was someone sitting there sick with cancer or some terminal illness because I lived right on top of this plant, I can't imagine how I would feel because that's their lives,” Hodge said. “Their whole quality of life was ruined by this and it was avoidable.”
Gore said better water monitoring is needed.
“We need policies and laws that require them to monitor what's happening to the drinking water,” said Gore. “We need a requirement that they need to not just cover it on top, but cover it underneath so that it doesn't continue leaching down into the groundwater and rivers and then we need to stop making so much of it.”
So far, Duke Energy says it has excavated nearly 18 million tons of coal ash. The utility says they are making efforts to recycle the ash for use in the construction industry.
Crews have also been installing new water lines and water filter systems in some affected North Carolina neighborhoods.
Duke Energy later released this statement on Sunday evening:
Our focus remains on protecting communities and the environment as we continue to provide electricity for customers in more sustainable ways. We welcome all perspectives on these complex issues and appreciate the opportunity to hear what's on people's minds.
We're closing ash basins in ways that protect communities and the environment, while managing costs for customers. These coal plants have been part of the fabric of these communities for decades. Ash basins are engineered, permitted treatment facilities and have been common practice across the nation for many years.
At the Buck and HF Lee sites, we will be excavating the ash and reprocessing it for use in the concrete industry. We're enthusiastic about the new opportunity this presents to recycle ash into buildings and bridges. At Belews Creek, we're completing the scientific and engineering studies to develop a safe closure plan that we'll submit to state regulators for review. The Buck and HF Lee plants have retired, and the Belews Creek plant transitioned to newer technology in the 1980s to manage fly ash in landfills.
It's very important to note that the state's testing demonstrated neighbors' wells near these sites have not been impacted by ash basin operations.
On Monday Gore and Barber will hold a news conference at Belews Creek in Stokes County. That area contains a site they say has been heavily contaminated by toxic waste dumped by Duke Energy.
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