Thirteen More Coal Ash Disasters Waiting to Happen

Guest Blog | February 6, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy
Coal ash continues to pour into the Dan River from a broken stormwater pipe. Source: Appalachian Voices

Four days after the Southeast’s most recent coal ash disaster began, Duke Energy has yet to stop coal ash flowing into the Dan River. The impoundment failure is now the nation’s 3rd worst coal ash disaster and 13 additional Duke Energy power plants lurk across the state with old ash impoundments, already cited in lawsuits as problematic. The murky grey plume of toxic waste continues to travel downstream and is now entering Danville, VA’s drinking water intake. Officials there continue to say the water is safe to drink despite the lack of lab results from NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) testing for toxic heavy metals in the contaminated river or the drinking water itself.

Test results from Waterkeeper Alliance show that heavy metal levels are significantly higher than drinking water standards allow. Their independently verified samples taken at the site of the spill show arsenic levels that are 35 times higher and lead at 1,000 times greater than EPA drinking water standards.  Since the spill began, both Duke Energy and the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources have been slow to update the public on developments. Groups on the ground now tell us the utility may be trying to block public access to the river near the coal ash spill.

As of Thursday, February 6, the grey coal ash plume has travelled 20 miles downstream. Source: Appalachian Voices.

Today, Duke Energy announced it will address coal ash storage issues at eight retired plant sites across North Carolina, including at the Dan River plant. It’s a shame and a sham for the public that it takes this kind of disaster for Duke Energy to finally admit their impoundments are outdated and to start doing the right thing to clean up its coal ash. Duke has fought against proper, comprehensive regulation of the toxic waste for years.

In 2009, at least 12 Duke Energy employees submitted comments to EPA advocating for weak coal ash regulations that would do little to change coal ash disposal practices. In these comments, Duke argued that protective safeguards will cost the utility too much to implement and claim everything is fine. They deny that coal ash contains toxic heavy metals, or that it harms North Carolina’s waterways.

“Utilities have safely managed [coal combustion residuals (CCRs)] in hundreds of surface impoundments for decades… Our surface impoundments are sound, and we are committed to continue operating them safely.” Testified George Everette, Director of Environmental and Legislative Affairs for Duke Energy at public hearings for a federal coal ash rule on Sept. 14, 2010.

In today’s statement, a Duke spokesperson said the utility will consider two methods for closing impoundments: “capping and sealing” where ash is left in place and covered with a thick membrane and complete removal of ash to lined landfills. Unfortunately this announcement sounds much better than it really is and has no binding timeline or commitment.

Capping and sealing is highly ineffective as it leaves coal ash in place to pollute in perpetuity. The absence of an impermeable linerunderneath the ash means toxic heavy metals can continue to leach into soil, ground and surface waters. Capping is an outdated closure method and would not have prevented the Dan River spill. It is an unacceptable plan for dealing with Duke’s 16.7 billion gallons of ash across the state.

Before this disaster, DENR had determined the Dan River plant was operating illegally and Duke chose to do nothing. This spill was a failure of Duke’s routine maintenance, it wasn’t caused by a natural disaster or extenuating circumstances, reinforcing the reality that it’s nearly impossible to safely operate these old coal ash impoundments. The only effective means of addressing these impoundments is to remove the ash away into new dry, lined landfills that are safely away from public waterways, just like Santee Cooper plans to do in South Carolina.

In addition to spills, coal ash enters waterways from smaller seeps and leaching. Coal ash at Lake Sutton is deforming and killing thousands of fish a year. Source: Ecowatch

There is plenty of evidence (in addition to the ongoing Dan River spill) to the contrary; that’s why the state of North Carolina is suing Duke Energy to stop coal ash pollution. While the public continues to bear the costs of coal ash pollution, Duke Energy spent $5.99 million in 2013 alone on federal lobbying including efforts to block protective coal ash regulations.

Regardless of whether you think Duke’s negligence caused the Dan River spill, it will be negligent for Duke to fail to act and for the state of NC to allow the status quo to continue. We maintain that the safe way to deal with coal ash impoundments is to completely remove all the ash to lined, dry-state landfills with modern pollution controls away from waterways. Until that happens, its just a matter of time until the next coal ash spill at one of their other 13 sites. Duke needs to act now, not wait for EPA to finalize federal regulations, to clean up their mess.

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