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Community members speak during an information session on the closure of the coal ash pond at the Marshall Steam Station on Thursday at Sherrills Ford Elementary School.

Lake Norman-area residents are fired up about coal ash, and they showed up by the hundreds this week to let state environmental officials know.

Their message on Thursday to representatives from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality was a simple one: give Duke Energy no option but to excavate 16.8 million tons of coal ash from Marshall Steam Station’s 394-acre, unlined basin.

Hundreds of people packed the gymnasium at Sherrills Ford Elementary School, where DEQ held a public comment informational meeting about the basin closing. Dozens of other would-be attendees were turned away once the gym reached its 450-person capacity.

Sheila Holman, DEQ assistant secretary for the environment, said Marshall’s meeting was by far the most well-attended of three meetings the agency has held so far about Duke Energy’s plans to clean and close various coal-ash basins by 2029.

“Your voice is incredibly important to this process,” Holman told audience members. Her comment was met by eye rolls and sarcastic laughter.

Attendees refused to follow DEQ’s meeting format, instead yelling a collective “no!” when Holman told them to break into groups and visit informational booths set up around the room. At the booths were comment cards and DEQ subject-matter experts to answer questions.

Holman took a poll to gauge public interest in Duke Energy’s three proposals for cleanup: excavation, cap in place or a hybrid plan. Excavation is the only method that would include complete removal of coal ash from Marshall’s unlined pit.

She asked for a show of hands for anyone who preferred excavation. Almost every hand in the room went up. People clapped, cheered and yelled approvals.

One man raised his hand — and other audience members booed — when Holman asked if anyone preferred a hybrid method, which would include draining and excavating a portion of the basin closest to Lake Norman. The ash would be moved to the other side of the basin.

Not one hand was raised when Holman asked who preferred the cap-in-place method, which involves draining the water from the basin and covering it with a waterproof cap. The only response was a chorus of “boos” from the audience.

Duke Energy, which provided proposals to DEQ ahead of the meeting, said it prefers cap in place or the hybrid method.

“Bring the excavator out!” said one man from the audience.

The crowd grew restless as DEQ officials spoke among themselves at the front of the room.

For a while it seemed the meeting would end before even getting started. Confusion lasted for several minutes as DEQ officials remained silent and audience members speculated about what was happening. Assuming the meeting was over, many people started filing out of the room.

One attendee, using the microphone DEQ had been using, encouraged audience members to visit www.change.org and search “clean up coal ash on Lake Norman.”

A petition on that site — with almost 13,000 names as of Friday morning — encourages people to “tell the DEQ and Duke Energy to clean up the coal ash mess at Lake Norman by moving the ash out of the unlined pit to a safe, dry, lined storage — as Duke Energy is required to do at eight other sites in North Carolina, and as is happening at every coal ash lagoon in South Carolina.”

After several minutes, DEQ officials agreed to change the meeting format to question-and-answer. People quickly formed two long lines to take turns asking questions, some of which DEQ said it didn’t have knowledge or information to answer.

While DEQ officials weren’t entirely prepared for a Q&A-style meeting, Holman assured the crowd that she and other DEQ officials were taking note of the questions being asked and the concerns raised.

Someone asked who would pay for the coal-ash cleanup. Holman said that would be up to the N.C. Utilities Commission. “Duke will put forward what they think they should be compensated for the process,” she said.

“Hang on to your wallet,” one audience member interjected.

One speaker said she lives across the street from Marshall Steam Station, and she is concerned that toxic coal ash is seeping into her community’s drinking-water wells. “It terrifies me that I live there,” she said. “I don’t know if I should sell my house — get out now while I can — or what we should do.”

Added another speaker: “Anything but excavation, to me, is short of an answer.”

Frank Holleman with the Southern Environmental Law Center — which represents the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation — said Duke Energy has coal ash in both Carolinas, Indiana and other places. In South Carolina, he said, Duke Energy is being required to excavate sites where coal ash is stored.

“My question,” he said, “is why are the people of North Carolina not entitled to this same protection?”

Holleman urged DEQ officials to “listen to everything skeptically.”

He said Duke Energy used to say that not one site in North Carolina would be excavated. “And now eight of 14 have been excavated — not because of what the state did, not because of what Duke did, but because communities like this took action and made it happen.”

John Ong, who lives in the Lake Norman area, said the mission of DEQ is “to protect the natural resources of the state and the health of the people in it.

“Given that — and the fact that we all know that science is clear that unlined pits pose a danger, I would ask that the department and the rest of the state government step up to protect our health and safety,” he said.

“Cost is not a factor,” Ong added. “Duke Energy is a profit-making machine.”

Applause and cheers drowned the rest of his comment except for two words that he repeated: “Step up.”

And that’s what State Sen. Vickie Sawyer did when she followed Rep. John Fraley in addressing the crowd.

Sawyer said it was several months ago when she met Susan Wind, a mother who commissioned a team of Duke University chemists to study Mooresville’s environment after her teen daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Duke Energy contends there is no link between coal ash and thyroid cancer.

“Since that time — sitting beside her in a coffee shop — I’ve been trying to be her champion in the General Assembly,” Sawyer said. “And I’ll tell you why: not only because I respect her and her opinions and what she’s done and how she’s raised money, and how she’s fighting for not only her daughter but all of our daughters, but, selfishly, I have a small house on Lake Norman.”

She said her house sits behind Lake Norman High School, where coal ash was disrupted and exposed late last year after heavy rains. “I have 40,000 tons of ‘beneficial fill’ less than 2,000 feet away from my drinking well,” she said.

“I’m also a mother of daughters,” Sawyer said, sharing that she had both daughters checked for thyroid cancer.

“I think the most wonderful thing I heard tonight was your questions; I think the most painful thing I heard tonight is that us elected officials don’t care,” continued Sawyer, growing emotional. “We have been fighting and representing you from day one.

“I wish I could give you answers,” she said. “But the only thing I can tell you is that I’m here. I’m fighting for you every day. I’m fighting for my children’s health as well as yours. And we will not stop until we get the correct answer.”

Holman said DEQ is accepting public comment on the closure options until Feb. 15. She said DEQ will complete its review of the options by April 1. Duke Energy must submit to DEQ a final closure plan by Aug. 1, after which DEQ will conduct a technical review. At that point, Holman said DEQ will hold official public comment sessions before taking any final action on Duke Energy’s closure plan.

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