Clarke Morrison, in a home page article in Asheville’s Citizen Times, “Disasters Prompt a New Look at Coal Ash Handling”, points out that the Dan River coal ash spill near Eden on February 2 was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.
“I think the spill is a game-changer for the state of North Carolina,” Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper with the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance said. “Kingston sort of put things on the radar. I think the Dan River brought it home.”
The Dan River was contaminated by the spill of over 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash from a retired Duke plant. State health officials advised that people not eat fish from the river and to avoid contact with the water. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury and a host of other chemicals that are toxic to humans and aquatic life.
Toxic waste from coal plants has historically been dumped into what are called coal ash lagoons, which are unlined pits with earthen dams, situated next to freshwater bodies. Concern has been rising about the possibility of ground water contamination and the potential damage to rivers such as the French Broad if major spills occurred.
It is estimated that North Carolina may have as many as 31 leaking coal ash ponds.
In South Carolina in 2012, the Southern Environmental Law Center sued the state’s two major utilities, Santee Cooper and SCE&G, over groundwater contamination from their ash ponds. Both utilities quickly settled, agreeing to move the ash to lined landfills at an estimated cost of $250 million.
However, North Carolina’s response has been very different from SC. Last year, a civilian group filed notice to sue Duke under the federal Clean Water Act. NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources intervened and imposed only a light fee with no provision to halt contamination from coal ash.
Duke still maintains that the ash pond dams at the Lake Julian plant are safe and are regularly inspected by state regulators, that the spill was caused by a break in an underground wastewater pipe, and there are no underground pipes at many of the other ponds.
Governor Pat McCrory said that a task force will be set up to assess all of Duke’s coal ash dumps and what must be done to clean them up. “We must look to the future of coal ash storage and how we can best protect the citizens of North Carolina and our environment,” McCrory said.
Tom Apodaca (R-Hendersonville) has committed to proposing legislation that will force Duke Energy to clean up every coal ash pit in the state and move the ash to properly lined dry storage locations away from our rivers.
We need to let our legislators know that this is important to us. We cannot continue to let corporations such as Duke fail to consider their negative impacts on the environment and ultimately on our quality of life.