Climate

WATCH: Inside A Coal Ash Community That Can’t Use Its Tap Water

CREDIT: AP Photo/Chuck Burton

In this April 25, 2014 photo, Bryant Gobble, left, hugs his wife, Sherry Gobble, right, as they look from their yard across an ash pond full of dead trees toward Duke Energy's Buck Steam Station in Dukeville, N.C.

When Sherry Gobble gets anxiety, she’s generally not thinking about work or money. She’s thinking about something most Americans rarely consider: her tap water.

“The hardest moments for me is when I’m laying awake in the middle of the night and I’m thinking about all the times I made a pitcher of Kool-Aid with the water, or I boiled a pot of corn or potatoes with the water,” she said. “Those thoughts stick with me in the middle of the night.”

That quote comes from a new mini-documentary by the Center For American Progress (CAP), which chronicles Gobble’s life living directly next to a coal ash pond in Dukeville, North Carolina. Coal ash is the second-largest form of waste generated in the United States, and contains contains chemicals like arsenic, chromium, mercury, and lead. Just this past summer, Gobble found out via tests from the group Waterkeeper Alliance that the water wells surrounding her home — including the one that provides her tap water — contain aluminum, chromium, lead, iron, manganese, and hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen. Duke Energy, the company that owns the coal ash pond, has denied that the contamination is its doing.

ThinkProgress has reported extensively on Gobble and the drinking water situation in Dukeville. But the new mini-documentary from CAP adds a new element to the story of pollution and illnesses allegedly resulting from it: the court system. Because coal ash is not regulated by either the North Carolina or federal government (the EPA has proposed federal regulations for coal ash, but they have not been finalized), citizens must use the court system if they want to see compensation for their troubles. And the court system, the documentary alleges, is not working the way it should.

“North Carolina’s judicial elections are now inundated with money from big business and the GOP,” said Billy Corriher, the director of research for Legal Progress at CAP. “Before 2014, candidates could rely on public financing instead of big-money donors. But now, wealthy campaign donors are the only option for NC judges.”

Until 2013, North Carolina elected judges using a public financing program that gave candidates several hundred thousand dollars for their judicial campaigns if they raised enough money from small donors. According to a CAP report on the subject, the decade-long program “muted the influence of deep-pocketed donors” to judicial elections, and therefore kept special interests out of the court system.

Now, judicial elections are funded by private money, and CAP alleges that this will allow corporate polluters to buy more influence in the justice system and prevent individuals like Gobble from achieving justice in court.

“[The repeal of public financing] gives corporate polluters and other special interests the opportunity to elect the judges that they want,” Michele Jawando, the Vice President of Legal Progress, said in the video. “Everyone should care about this, because when you take the fact that the state and federal government have basically abdicated their responsibility to regulate these issues, the state courts are the last stopgap.”

So far, two lawsuits have been filed in North Carolina that aim to require Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash ponds across the state. Some families in Dukeville and the surrounding communities are considering filing a class action lawsuit against Duke Energy, but that is in the early stages.

More on how money from polluters goes into North Carolina’s judicial elections can be found here.