Coal ash remains in the
Dan River - experts say situation is far from over
As Duke Energy works to control the issue without expending billions, environmentalists argue that this is just beginning and call for more action
Multimedia Reporting by Al Drago
EDEN, N.C. — As the Dan River flows through Eden its water levels and clarity seem normal. But the Dan is still battling a dangerous enemy.
On February 2, 2014, 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan after a 48-inch pipe broke at a defunct coal-fired power plant owned by Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility, near Eden.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Dan River coal ash spill is the third-worst spill in the history of the United States. Spills into the Dan in North Carolina and a spill about five years earlier in Tennessee spurred the EPA to begin to regulate the storage and disposal of coal ash. It is estimated that 140 million tons of the waste are produced by U.S. utilities annually.
Coal ash is a sludge-like byproduct of coal mining underground. It can contain arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium.
The site of North Carolina’s largest spill is located near the middle of the Dan River Basin, a watershed that stretches across parts of 13 counties in North Carolina and Virginia. The contaminated water threatened the drinking water for nearly half a million people.
The spill was first discovered by a security guard shortly after 2 p.m. on a winter Sunday. He noticed that the water level was low in the primary coal ash waste pond and the storm water pipe was broken. By the following Tuesday environmentalists observed 6-inch thick coal ash at the bottom of the river as many as 2 miles downstream. By Thursday, a plume of coal ash debris could be seen 50 miles downstream in Kerr Lake.
“It was an accident, it didn’t work the way it should have worked. It did not meet our standards or expectations,” said Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good in a “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl. Good does not grant many interviews, in fact it is a known fact that energy company executives prefer not to be interviewed. But here’s what we know.
In 1986 Duke Energy commissioned an Ash Basin Dikes report from the Law Engineering Company. The report mentioned that it would be “desirable to do quantitative monitoring of inflow and outflow of the 48-inch diameter culvert.” In addition the report shows that the pipe was made of corrugated metal, that “would be expected to have less longevity of satisfactory service than the reinforced concrete pipes.”
Further reports filed in 1996, 2001 and 2006 advised that Duke Energy should carefully monitor the pipe. Good told Stahl that Duke Energy did monitor the pipe, and believed that the pipe would leak before it failed.
“It didn’t fail in that way. It failed without leaking,” said Good.
On April 18, 2014 three scientists from North Carolina State University reported that the Dan’s water was safe for crops and livestock. By November, Duke Energy said it had removed 3,000 tons of ash from the river. In January 2015, although not all the ash had been removed from the water, Eden town officials and Duke Energy officials proclaimed “Our rivers are thriving,” and indicated that the river is back to normal.
Environmentalists and citizens say the claims are false, explaining that this is just the beginning.
“Duke is really behind on this,” said Martha Girolami, a resident of Chatham County and environmental activist.
In an August letter to the North Carolina Legislature, Girolami accused Duke Energy of avoiding its responsibility in fixing the river.
“The Dan River spill and Duke Energy’s lack of cooperation and threats about rate increases, the belief that DENR is weak and, told what to do by Duke Energy, DENR’s failure to act on coal ash disposal and continuing water pollution is not good for our State on so many levels,” she wrote.
CAP IN PLACE: FINDING A WAY TO SAFELY CAP THE ASH
Today there are 1,000 coal ash waste pits in the U.S. In North Carolina. Among those, Duke Energy owns 32 coal ash pits at 14 sites that contain six decades of waste. In the last five years Duke Energy has closed almost half of its coal ash plants as it moves towards harvesting natural gas. Instead of dealing with the coal ash that had already been extracted, Duke Energy has left all of the coal ash waste standing in ponds. These pits containing coal ash are located next to water sources and threaten spilling over similar to what happened in Eden.
“This is no way to store industrial waste in large quantities, in such a primitive way.” — Frank Holleman
The safest way to handle coal ash remains is to extract the material and store it in a lined facility away from water. Duke claims that the amount of coal ash that must be handled is too large for excavation to be done. The next option involves encapsulating the coal ash pits completely without moving their current location.
Duke Energy estimates the price for that could total $8 billion. A third option, called “cap-in-place,” only covers the top of the pits, leaving the bottom still exposed to the environment.
Environmentalists are advocating against “cap-in-place,” which would cost $2 billion, because coal ash could still spill from underground.
“This is no way to store industrial waste in large quantities, in such a primitive way,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill.
On August 20, 2014, the North Carolina State Legislature passed the Coal Ash Management Act, which ordered all wet ash in the state to be removed. It ordered Duke to close its four most vulnerable sites by 2019 and all sites by 2029.
In addition, the bill temporarily banned Duke Energy from raising its rates to offset the cost for the removal. Still, the full removal could take up to 15 years, according to the legislature’s timeline. The bill called for four sites they labeled “high-priority,” including the Dan River site, to be immediately moved into a fully lined facility. As of now, the remaining Duke Energy sites could be contained with the “cap-in-place” method.
The EPA has received nearly half a million comments on proposed regulations first announced in 2010. In late 2014 a final EPA rule on disposal of coal combustion residuals was signed and published to the Federal Register. Utilities will be required to publish details on the status of coal ash ponds on public websites. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy told the media that energy companies with coal ash ponds found contaminating groundwater “are going to be on the hook” to shut them down and clean them up. Officials from the Sierra Club, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Southern Environmental Law Center said the steps are minimal and disappointing.
SPILL AFTERMATH STILL NEEDS TO BE RESOLVED
In February 2015, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to sue Duke Energy for compensation for damages caused by the coal ash spill. Coy Harville, Westover supervisor for Pittsylvania County, lives on the Dan River and was not able to use the river at all last summer.
“I’m just aggravated at Duke for the way they are doing the county on this,” said Harville. “The citizens of Pittsylvania County were deprived of any activity on the river.”
“Duke Energy is committed to working… to expedite the benefits of this agreement and to help protect and restore natural resources in the state.” — Paul Newton
In February, Duke Energy announced that the company is guilty of nine misdemeanor offenses and work to pay the fines and settlements with those that the coal ash spill affected. The company also faces a 5-year probation for its violations against the Clean Water Act.
“Duke has declared defeat,” said Holleman. Among those settlements, Duke reached a settlement with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in March to pay $2.5 million towards environmental projects to benefit the affected Virginia communities.
“Although the Dan River coal ash spill occurred in North Carolina, we recognize the number of miles that the river spans in Virginia,” said Paul Newton, North Carolina President of Duke Energy. “Duke Energy is committed to working with Virginia DEQ to expedite the benefits of this agreement and to help protect and restore natural resources in the state.”
On April 14, 2015 Duke Energy appeared in Federal Court in Greenville, North Carolina. U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard granted a one month extension in order for Duke Energy to finalize its plea deal. Duke Energy will reappear in court on Thursday, May 14, 2015 to hear its final verdict, where they will possibly face debarment.
“We expect to appear for sentencing,’’ said Paige Sheehan, a spokesman for Duke Energy, after the April hearing. “We are not walking away form this agreement.’’
Since Duke is the only major electricity supplier in the state, the ruling could affect the power to several government complexes, everything from post offices to military bases. One of the first contracts that it could affect is Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, two major military bases, whose contract expires on September 30. However, waivers could be filed that would make an exception to allow Duke to continue to do business with the government.
Environmentalists say that this new issue is taking away from the issue of the coal ash still in the water. They say they will keep fighting until all of the coal ash is removed from the state.
“The situation with the Dan River is far, far, far from over,” said Holleman.