Activists block a train from bringing coal to a Duke coal plant in May, 2012

Throughout high school, I swam in Mountain Island Lake and the Catawba River every summer. It was only within the last year, after I graduated just a few miles from there, that I learned what a risk I had been taking with those swims, thanks to the pollution from Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

Coal ash – the waste produced from coal burnt at the Riverbend power plant – sits in unlined ponds next to the Catawba River, which provides much of Charlotte with drinking water. In addition to having to worry about contamination, two of the plant’s coal ash impoundments have been rated as high hazards by the EPA, meaning that a dam failure will “probably cause loss of human life”.

Coal ash isn’t the only problem at Riverbend, I tell students in classroom presentations I’ve been giving since February. According to the Clean Air Task Force, Riverbend’s air pollution causes an average of 22 heart attacks, 260 asthma attacks, and 15 premature deaths every year.

That data is more than just numbers on a page for me. Sixteen teachers have been diagnosed with cancer in just the past four years at my former high school. Since I learned about these problems, I’ve been giving presentations to classes there, asking how many kids have asthma. Half raise their hands.

How is Duke handling its responsibility for this carnage? It is demanding that we pay higher rates so that it can build more coal plants. My family and other ratepayers working with organizations like Greenpeace US have repeatedly showed up at hearings and rallies to say that we’d rather have Duke invest our money in clean energy, not more pollution, but Duke has refused to listen. Duke’s current plan calls for less than 4 percent of the energy it makes in North Carolina to come from renewable sources by 2030. (source: Duke Energy Carolinas’ Integrated Resource Plan and 2011 REPS Compliance Plan, p 55)

Duke hasn’t listened to ratepayers like us, but maybe it would listen to one of its largest customers in the state: Apple.

Apple came to North Carolina last year to build a massive data center in Maiden that will store the data for its iCloud services. Duke’s executives bragged publicly about how they lured Apple to North Carolina with promises of cheap coal energy. They probably neglected to tell Apple about the lives that coal-fired energy endangers, like mine. Those costs aren’t included in Duke’s bottom line.

The good news is that Apple announced in May that it would power 60 % of its facility with two large solar panel arrays, lowering their use of coal energy. They even said the site would be fully “coal-free” by the end of 2012. This news should be great for me, right? It should mean less demand on Duke to burn the coal that makes my community sick.

Unfortunately, there may be a catch. Apple has said the other 40% of its electricity needs would come from renewable energy, but it hasn’t said exactly what that means yet. There’s a good chance that Apple will still be buying its electricity from Duke, and then purchasing “Renewable Energy Credits” (RECs) in North Carolina. That would make Apple “coal free” in name only. RECs are similar to carbon offsets in that they allow companies to pay others who actually produce renewable energy, but keep using dirty electricity for themselves. In other words, if Apple uses RECs, no less coal gets burned by Duke.

In very real terms, that means that if Apple uses RECs, my family doesn’t get one ounce less of coal pollution in our air or water.

Apple can do better. It should use its buying power as one of Duke Energy’s anticipated top 10 customers to demand that Duke provide it with clean energy. If Duke shifts its investment plan to renewable energy, not only Apple, but also people like me win by getting greater access to clean electricity.

I love my iPod, but I want to use it without the knowledge that Apple’s iCloud is causing the destruction of my own community. Young people like me are some of Apple’s biggest fans and customers. All we ask in return is that Apple join us in our struggle to keep our communities safe. They can do that by telling Duke to retire plants like Riverbend, and to power the iCloud with clean, safe and renewable energy instead.

Emily Euchner lives in Stanley, North Carolina in the United States