The coal-ash debate is heating up as clocks wind down for state environmental regulators determining how Duke Energy should clean and close coal ash pits across the state.

For the Lake Norman area, that means the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality should decide by Monday how Duke Energy will close its 394-acre unlined basin – full of 16.8 million tons of coal ash – at Marshall Steam Station, which burns coal for energy.

Marshall sits upstream from thousands of Mooresville residents’ drinking-water resources.

State law requires Duke Energy to close all its coal ash basins by Dec. 31, 2029 after, in 2014, it accidentally spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in Eden.

Duke Energy is excavating coal ash from some of its basins but prefers, for Marshall, to “cap” the ash in place. That means water would be drained from the basin, and it would be covered by a synthetic cap, leaving the ash indefinitely.

Environmentalists argue that isn’t “cleanup” at all. They say it wouldn’t meet federal storage rules that require coal ash to be stored at least five feet above the water table. With no liner between the ground and coal ash in the Marshall basin, environmentalists also fear future breaches or leaks into groundwater.

Mooresville is home to the highest number of structural coal-ash fill sites in the state.

N.C. Senator Vickie Sawyer just introduced legislation to limit the amount of coal ash that can be used in structural fills. Sawyer and her family live near Lake Norman High School, where 40,000 tons of coal ash used as fill was recently disturbed and exposed due to construction and heavy rains.

“As of right now, you can put coal ash in an unlined fill as beneficial use as long as it’s 8,000 cubic tons or less and it’s proven to not be interfering with the water table,” Sawyer said last week in a meeting of local doctors who are concerned about Mooresville’s unusually high number of thyroid cancer cases.

“We’re just not going to put any coal ash in the ground from here on out,” the freshman senator told the healthcare providers.

Sen. Vickie Sawyer introduces bills on coal ash, cancer. Photo courtesy of Larkin Photography.

Separately, Sawyer also filed a bill to study statewide cancer trends. She said the bill is widely supported and should be voted through the Senate on Monday. “A study of cancer as a whole in North Carolina has never been done,” she said.

Sawyer’s bill would organize a 17-member panel of state public health officials and academic experts to complete a comprehensive examination in the next year of statewide cancer trends. The group would be led by the N.C. Policy Collaboratory at UNC Chapel Hill.

Sawyer said cancers that cluster are of particular concern to her.

She said the N.C. General Assembly usually works only with state-supported universities, but she made a point to include the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in the bill since researchers there have been extensively studying Mooresville’s environment for months.

Mooresville resident Susan Wind privately commissioned that research after her teen daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The group of Duke University chemists provided its first update on the study in the meeting of doctors last week.

The issue of coal ash was raised.

Could it be contributing to Mooresville’s high rates of cancer?

Duke University’s Dr. Heather Stapleton confirmed radiation was identified in soil samples near Lake Norman High School, and radiation is a known risk factor for cancer. Stapleton said Duke University needs more study into the soil and air in Mooresville, but she didn’t rule-out coal ash as a potential cause.

Wind recently re-opened the crowdfunding site to raise more funds so Duke University can continue its independent study into Mooresville’s environment.

To donate, click here.

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