1 year since Dan River: 3 ways to prevent another coal ash disaster

Enough coal ash poured into the Dan River to fill 20 to 32 Olympic-sized swimming pools with toxic waste. Source: Appalachian Voices

One year ago today, Duke Energy dumped nearly 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina. That’s a total of 140,000 tons of toxic waste and wastewater combined into the sensitive eco-system of the Dan River. By the end of two weeks, a dark grey plume of this toxic by-product of coal-fired power had traveled 70 miles downstream, and where it settled on the riverbed. The spill and its aftermath made coal ash a national news story throughout 2014. The outrage of community members and advocates across the state, combined with the media attention to the environmental disaster eventually exposed cozy relationships between Duke and the state agencies that were supposed to be protecting the public and NC’s waterways. Today, communities across the state are left with the foreboding possibility that a similar disaster could unfold at one or all of Duke’s 14 leaking sites.

Last month, EPA finally released its long-awaited rules on coal ash. EPA was prompted by an even bigger coal ash disaster in Kingston, TN that occurred six years ago. Despite the clear risks, the agency declined to regulate the toxic substance as “hazardous” and offered only a weak set of rules that leave accountability to the utilities themselves, state environmental agencies, and citizen suits. Already, Congress is trying to dismantle even this inadequate rule. In the absence of strong, federal safeguards, there are 3 important steps that NC communities, state agencies, the legislature, and Duke Energy can take to ensure that a coal ash disaster won’t happen in NC again.

1. Duke should prioritize removing coal ash to lined landfills away from waterways

Most of Duke’s coal ash is stored in unlined, wet-impoundments – toxic lagoons that are nearly impossible to safely operate. The Dan River disaster was a failure of Duke’s routine maintenance, not a natural disaster. The safest way to address coal ash is to remove the waste from old, leaking impoundments and to dry, lined storage away from waterways, and this needs to happen ASAP. We know that when utilities prioritize cleanup, it can happen fast. As the result of a lawsuit, in November 2013, one South Carolina’s utilities Santee Cooper agreed to move coal ash from its unlined impoundments by the end of 2023. The utility is currently ahead of schedule having already removed 164,000 tons from its Grainger facility on the Waccamaw River in Conway, South Carolina. At its current rate of removal, Santee Cooper will complete cleanup by 2019, four years ahead of schedule. Duke needs to step it up.

All of Duke’s 14 power plant sites have been leaking toxic substances into groundwater for decades, and after years of inaction, community outrage across the state eventually led the NC General Assembly to pass the Coal Ash Management Act last fall, but the bill comes up short and doesn’t adequately protect NC communities. Earlier in 2014, as the result of citizen suits to enforce the Clean Water Act, a judge ruled that Duke must take immediate action to clean up all sources of groundwater pollution at its sites in NC. Instead of codifying this ruling into law, the Assembly Bill actually undermines current groundwater protection laws, will only drive clean-up of 4 of Duke’s 33 unlined impoundments, and largely gives Duke a pass for the harm its dangerous and polluting sites are causing communities and waterways statewide. Duke wants to cap its coal ash in leaching impoundments, but communities and public officials across the state are demanding that the utility more fully clean up its mess. The only way to do that, is to remove coal ash and place it in dry, lined landfills away from waterways.

Dry storage in a coal ash landfill

 2. Duke needs to pay the cost of clean up

Before the Dan River disaster, North Carolina’s Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR) determined the Dan River facility was operating illegally, but Duke chose to do nothing. This step is a total no-brainer. Duke’s recklessness and failure to adequately maintain its impoundments along the Dan River were to blame for the disaster, so Duke should clean it up and pay the cost of cleanup.

One year after the disaster, Duke has only removed 7.7% of the coal ash waste from the Dan River – about 3,000 tons (and it would have been impossible to remove any of the polluted wastewater). Duke hasn’t accounted for the other 92.3%, though it’s already claiming that “…the river is thriving.” In reality, it will likely take years for the Dan River to recover from this disaster, and thorough cleanup will be expensive as new layers of sediment are piling up on top of the ash waste. Research by Wake Forest University biologist Dennis Lemly indicated the costs could be up to $300 million for full clean-up.

Duke also needs to pay the cost of cleaning up all its other sites. The Coal Ash Management Act leaves the door wide open for Duke to pass on the costs of clean-up to ratepayers across the state. In an August editorial, Raleigh’s News & Observer pointed out, “Duke Energy saved money for decades by taking the cheap and reckless route…” The Observer went on to indicate widespread support in NC for Duke to pay the cost of cleanup. The NC Utilities Commission should ensure that the communities across the state have adequate opportunity to voice their concerns, and in the coming months, communities and public officials across the state need to demand that Duke and its shareholders absorb the costs of cleanup.

 3. We need to keep the pressure on!

Even though the Coal Ash Management Act offers a path forward for NC, it’s not enough to rely on the legislature, our state agencies, or Duke Energy. It’s totally possible that the bill could face challenges and delays from the state legislature and DENR in the future. DENR’s questionable relationship with Duke has already faced scrutiny from Federal Investigators. Even though much of the implementation of the Coal Ash Management Act measures will be directed by the 9-member Coal Ash Management Commission – appointed by the Assembly and the Governor, DENR has a significant role in the process. By the end of this year, DENR must propose classifications for coal ash impoundments in NC and allow for public comments and hold public hearings. The Coal Ash Management Commission will then make final determinations for which sites in NC are high-risk, meaning the coal ash and residuals must be removed to lined landfills by 2019. NC communities, advocates, and public officials across the state need to keep the pressure on DENR, the Coal Ash Management Commission, and Duke to ensure they are aggressively pursuing clean-up of coal sites across the state.

Advocates are also bringing legal pressure to bear: SACE joined a lawsuit to compel Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash pollution from the Dan River site once and for all. And our allies across the state (Appalachian Voices, Cape Fear Riverwatch, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, Dan River Basin Association, MountainTrue, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, Roanoke River Basin Association, Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Waterkeeper Alliance, Winyah Rivers Foundation, and Yadkin Riverkeeper) are ensuring that all the other locations are also cleaned up. We are all represented in these cases by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Today, as we reflect on the damage done to our environment and communities due to coal ash and Duke’s recklessness, it’s clear that we need our state agencies, our legislature, and Duke to pursue coal ash clean-up with urgency. Only  continuous public pressure and scrutiny can ensure that they do.

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