Speakers at a Tuesday night public hearing on Duke Energy's application for a state permit for a coal ash recycling project at its H.F. Lee Plant left no doubt that they do not trust the company.

Several speakers suggested that alternatives to the proposal to burn the coal ash exist and should be explored.

They said health issues already exist in the community near the plant and that they do not see how burning coal ash will do anything to improve that.

Fewer than 50 people attended the hearing before officials with the N.C. Division of Air Quality held at Wayne Community College's Moffatt Auditorium. Speakers blamed the weak showing on poor advertising about the hearing.

In December 2016, Duke announced plans to excavate coal ash from four basins at the H.F. Lee Plant to be recycled for use in concrete products.

The project has been reviewed by the state to determine compliance with state air pollution regulations.

The results of that review led to the preliminary determination that the project could be approved and the Division of Air Quality permit could be issued, if certain permit conditions are met.

But Tuesday night, several speakers asked that the permit be denied or at least delayed pending completion of an environmental justice study.

Mary Maness of Goldsboro said she receives most emails and texts on environmental issues, but had received nothing about the hearing.

"You can tell from this massive turnout that this was not well advertised," she said. "So there needs to be another hearing so that you won't be wasting your time presenting your facts to an empty room.

"This isn't recycling. This is burning pollution. You have pumped pollution into water around the H.F. Lee Plant, and now you are going to put it into the air?"

Coal ash has been around for 30 years, and Duke Energy has not been watching and now the company has to do something about it, she said.

Duke is trying to do something fast and something cheap, Maness said.

"They found that the coal ash might possibly be used to pave roads," she said. "So if they can sell it to somebody, they can go ahead and do something with it."

But the people who live around the plant are not guinea pigs to try the process out on to see if it is going to work or do any harm, Maness said.

"I would be behind Duke Energy," she said. "I would be all for this solution when Lynn Good (Duke chairman, president and chief executive officer) starts to burn coal ash in her backyard."

The H.F. Lee natural gas plant continues to run safely and reliably for the region, said Millie Chalk, Duke Energy district manager for the area.

"We're closing coal ash basins at the site by safely recycling the material and turning it into a valuable product," she said.

Coal ash can be used in concrete and cement products to improve performance and enhance the durability of structures such as roads and bridges, Chalk said.

"But extra carbon left in the ash must be removed first," she said. "Therefore, we are building an ash reprocessing unit to make the material suitable for the concrete industry.

"Short-term benefits include 100 to 200 construction workers contributing to the local economy. Long-term, the investment will boost the local tax base, and any net proceeds from ash sales benefit customers in lowering overall project cost."

Chalk sought to assure residents about the environmental safeguards that would be in place.

But the speakers who followed her did not appear convinced.

"As others have stated, this is a dubious plan that relies on shoddy research provided by Duke themselves," said Annalise Sheppard who spoke on behalf of Dr. Kyle Horton, Democratic candidate for U.S. House District 7.

Sheppard said her main question is what is Duke prepared to do mitigate these issues.

"I don't know how a representative from Duke can come here and talk to us about saving money when our property values are going down; we can't afford to move; we can't get heath care; we can't get jobs other than in this blackmailing system," she said.

"So what is Duke prepared to do to repair the relationship with these disenfranchised, abused people because it is not about new roads. It's not about 200 jobs. It is about setting a precedent of preserving a way of life."

Mark Colebrook, founder of nonprofit Operation Unite Goldsboro, said his children live in Goldsboro, and that he is concerned that the coal ash issue has not been resolved.

"And now we are looking at doing something else to get rid of it in the air," he said. "The young lady that spoke up here from Duke Energy talked about lower project costs and how the savings and things were going to be passed on to the community.

"Well, the community is not looking for savings that much as where it is going to impact the health."

Studies can talk about "all of these things" and how safe it will be, but it still cannot be controlled once it gets into the air, Colebrook said.

"So when we are talking about trying to improve the relationship that has already been damaged with Duke Energy and the community -- this is just another way it's going to hurt us from the standpoint of health," he said.

"It is also going to hurt us in the pocket as well. So I am a strong proponent of looking for other ways to do that and not messing with the air quality as it is."

Bobby Jones of the Downeast Coal Ash Coalition told the hearing officers they are the judge who holds the community's health and well-being in their hands.

A large percentage of the population within a one-mile radius of the plants are minorities, he said.

"First of all, has not this community been through enough at the hands of Duke Energy -- over 60 years of poisonous coal ash in our community ... over 30 years of lies about the coal ash not being poisonous," he said.

"It has poisoned our water, our groundwater, being released into the Neuse River, falsifying research . . . We don't need to poison the air. This community has already been through so many broken promises. In closing I ask, will you protect the citizens of Wayne County or will you fall prey to Duke Energy's big-money influence?"

The public comment period on the application ends July 13.

For more information, call Ed Martin at 919-707-8400 or send email to Ed.Martin@ncdenr.gov.