Katie Stewart ’23

Staff Writer

Marshall Steam Station. Image courtesy of Duke Energy Corporation.

Huntersville and Mooresville, two Charlotte suburbs in the Lake Norman area, continue to struggle to explain growing cancer clusters. According to a WCNC news investigation, at least 30 people in Huntersville — a town of 50,000 residents — have been diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a type of cancer that normally occurs in five out of every million people. Similarly, the WCNC investigation also found that Mooresville’s rate of thyroid cancer is nearly three times the national average. 

In April 2017, North Carolina’s government allocated $100,000 to conduct research on potential causes for the high cancer rates; the grant money ran out in October 2019, and while researchers were able to rule out many traditional carcinogens like radon, they could not definitively state the cause. Left without a clear answer, many citizens turned their attention to the Duke Energy Marshall Steam Station, which is located on the Lake Norman waterfront and contains 17 million tons of coal ash in an unlined basin. 

Paige Sheehan, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, maintains that there is no research supporting the claim that coal ash has led to cancer clusters in North Carolina. 

“None of the information we have right now is pointing to coal ash […] and in fact a researcher at Duke University who has been a long time critic of ours has repeatedly studied this, and he has determined that he’s not seeing coal ash in the drinking wells of people who are even closest to our coal ash basins,” Sheehan said in an interview conducted by WCNC news.

Concerned citizens, however, point out that coal ash can contain carcinogens, such as lead and mercury. In addition to cancer, Davidson students and Environmental Science majors Corey Cochran ’21 and Kat Soltany ’22 emphasize other health risks associated with coal ash.

“The particulates in coal ash when burned play into asthma [and] facial irritation of the nose or eyes,” Cochran said.

“I feel like it’s kind of universal now at this point that people know how bad coal is. Especially coal ash: it’s terrible for your lungs, and nose, and your entire respiratory system.” Soltany added.

In response, many individual citizens have turned to activism, something Davidson’s Director of Sustainability Yancey Fouche can attest to. “A year and a half ago […] the state DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] had one of their public info sessions around what should happen with the coal ash that’s up by the McGuire Nuclear Station [and] it was phenomenal to see that process. It was clear they had expected ten or fifteen local neighbors to show up, and it was in this relatively small high school gym, and the cops had to stop people from entering because it was so full. Fast forward nine months, and DEQ actually ruled that the ash had to be excavated,” Fouche said.

According to an article in the Charlotte Observer, this excavation order extends to six power plants, two of which are on Lake Norman. The coal ash will be placed in either lined landfills or it will be recycled. The process will likely take many years and cost at least $4 billion. In response to the DEQ order, Duke Energy is trying to pass these costs onto rate payers (people who pay them electrical bills), although North Carolina House Democrats proposed a bill to block this.

For Mooresville and Huntersville, the coal ash at the Marshall Steam Station is not the only problem. The WCNC investigation also found that from 1995 to 2001, the plant sold coal ash for construction purposes as well and only saved records for large sales. This means that an unidentifiable amount of coal ash is in the area, and its precise location is unknown.

The situation in Mooresville and Huntersville has also garnered attention through assistance from famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who rose to prominence when she spoke out against Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for dumping hexavalent chromium, one of the harmful compounds present in coal ash, into wastewater ponds in California.

“The gig is up. Something’s going on at Lake Norman. Whether the ball got dropped, whether they didn’t look into it, whether something got concealed, I’m sorry that happens all the time,” Brokovitch said in a WCNC interview. 

Due to COVID-19, however, much of this work has been put on pause. For example, a March 19th meeting in Iredell County — where Mooresville is located — that was supposed to talk about thyroid cancer and coal ash in the area has been cancelled due to social distancing orders.

Nevertheless, Nick Proctor ’23, who recently wrote a Davidsonian Perspectives piece  that implored students to stand up for environmental justice, urged students to use their positions to fight the issue.

“One of the biggest things has to be continuing to put pressure on Congress. This is a really weird time right now, but we can’t afford to take four or five months off from action [with] Duke Energy dragging their feet on closing the plant […] Davidson is in a unique [position] where we have a lot of students who have privilege […] we have students who have the ability to call upon people in positions of power. We really have to get together as a community,” Proctor said.