Pressure Mounts for Duke Energy Coal Ash Cleanup

Guest Blog | April 21, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy
A protest organized by Charlotte Environmental Action Group gathered outside Duke Energy’s headquarters on Feb. 6. Source: Charlotte Business Journal

Since the Dan River coal ash disaster began, North Carolina seems to have become the epicenter in the fight to clean up coal ash dumpsites. All eyes are on Duke Energy and state officials as clean water, public health and environmental justice advocates across the country follow the latest developments and press for strong, comprehensive clean-up to serve as a model for how the nation’s 1,425 coal ash dumps are handled.

A lot has happened since our last update on North Carolina’s coal ash fight, in the courts, the court of public opinion, at the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR) and the General Assembly. While the call grows louder for Duke Energy to move their coal ash out of leaking impoundments and away from our rivers, lakes, and streams, the massive utility continues to resist actually making plans to clean up their toxic dumpsites across North Carolina.

Duke’s major shareholders are now joining environmentalists and concerned citizens in calling for action on ash. They are demanding an independent probe of the Dan River disaster and the immediate rejection of four members of Duke’s board of directors. According to the investors those directors  “have failed to fulfill their obligations of risk oversight as members of a committee overseeing health, safety, and environmental compliance at the company.” We couldn’t agree more. 

This kind of news will undoubtedly make the upcoming Duke shareholder meeting on May 1 more interesting than usual. Even if you’re not a shareholder, you can join advocates and concerned citizens across the state at a candlelight vigil on the eve of the shareholder’s meeting and rally and press conference the day of.

Instead of responding to the Dan River disaster by doing the right thing to clean up their ash (as two South Carolina utilities did when called out for their pollution) Duke Energy is fighting tooth and nail against protecting public health and the environment from the next coal ash disaster. The company’s actions continue to be in direct conflict with their promises to the public to be accountable for the Dan River spill and ash sites across the state.

Continuing the theme of this story’s growing complexity, long-time Duke Energy employee Governor Pat McCrory released his own plan for North Carolina’s coal ash, which seeks to put into law much of Duke’s now-defunct sweetheart coal ash deal. The bill reeks of an industry handout, giving Duke “almost infinite options for closure and leniency concerning timing, and fails to set clear deadlines and strict environmental and public health standards” according to analysis by several environmental groups.

Adding insult to injury: On March 10 NC DENR cited Duke Energy for illegally pumping coal ash wastewater to a tributary of the Cape Fear River. Source: Waterkeeper Alliance

Duke Energy also asked a judge to shield its records from North Carolina regulators and environmental groups while a federal criminal investigation is ongoing, claiming concern that releasing coal ash records as part of ongoing civil suits would negatively impact their public image and hurt them in a separate criminal investigation. On April 7 Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway denied that request, allowing millions of Duke’s documents become available to environmental groups like ours who are suing Duke to comply with the Clean Water Act. Despite Duke’s best efforts to derail the citizen suits that originally triggered enforcement action for their illegal ash pollution, these civil legal proceedings continue as a federal judge overruled on April 17 a recommendation that these lawsuits be dismissed.

While Duke has agreed to close coal ash impoundments at four sites; the Dan River, Asheville, Sutton and Riverbend plants, many questions remain unanswered about coal ash at the remaining 10 coal fired power plants across the state. Meanwhile, the utility reiterates the notion that federal regulations declaring coal ash a hazardous waste would make disposal nearly impossible. While we understand there’s no instant fix for North Carolina’s coal ash problem, leaving the ash in place in impoundments that are known to be leaking into the State’s ground and surface waters, simply isn’t an acceptable solution. In fact, it’s no solution at all as even capped impoundments will continue to leach toxics into precious water resources and threaten communities with another catastrophic spill.

As discussed in our previous post, fallout from the Dan River disaster has been fraught with scandal from the beginning, as media and exposure uncovered disturbingly cozy relations between Duke Energy and the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR). Following Duke’s lead, NC DENR continues to raise suspicions as they say one thing and do another. After claiming they would hold Duke accountable for illegal pollution and dangerous coal ash sites, DENR sided with Duke Energy when the state’s own Environmental Review Commission (ERC) appealed this ruling, which actually gave North Carolina officials full authority to stop coal ash pollution.

In response, many echoed the sentiment of DJ Gerken of the Southern Environmental Law Center:

“Just a week after the state publicly abandoned its sweetheart deal with Duke and promised to ‘enforce’ the law, it has appealed a judicial ruling that confirmed the state’s legal authority to enforce a real solution for coal ash contamination,” Gerken said. “We’re disappointed that this administration remains so determined to delay through litigation rather than move forward to stop ongoing pollution of North Carolina’s rivers, lakes and groundwater.”

Governor McCrory's proposal is being criticized as following closely Duke Energy's own proposal for coal ash and as not eliminating contamination threats across the state. Source: Charlotte News and Observer

Meanwhile in the General Assembly, legislators are drafting multiple bills aimed at addressing coal ash at the state level. The ERC will hold a public meeting on April 22 (ironically, that is Earth Day) to review reports on the Dan River spill and Duke’s (mis)management of coal ash in the state. And as we mentioned already, Gov. Pat McCrory is piling on in favor of Duke with his own bill as well, which is much weaker than other bills forming in the legislature.

North Carolina’s not the only place where we’re seeing movements to protect communities and the environment from the toxic threat of coal ash. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection recently announced plans to close the nation’s largest coal ash disposal facility at Little Blue Run. And closer to home, in Kentucky neighbors of Louisville Gas & Electric’s Cane Run Power plant are suing to stop the massive clouds of coal ash dust that have plagued the community for years.

Developments in North Carolina show no sign of slowing down and advocates are heading to EPA Region 4 next week to address the new Regional Administrator about coal ash concerns across the Southeast. Stay tuned for our next blog update and make sure you follow and like our Southeast Coal Ash Campaign on Facebook and Twitter. Check out our calendar for upcoming events and opportunities to make your voice heard across North Carolina and the Southeast!

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