Duke finds more corrugated pipes, as public sentiment rises

Posted by Craig Jarvis on March 5, 2014 

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Duke Energy scaffolding supports equipment plugging the pipe that leaked coal ash into the Dan River. The Dan River in Eden, NC was running high Tuesday February 25, 2014. New estimates by a team of experts using a drone say a coal ash pond at Duke Energy's Dan River Steam Station leaked at least 35 million gallons tons of coal ash into the Dan River after a drainage pipe running beneath the coal ash pond failed pouring the substance into the waterway.

JOHN D. SIMMONS — jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Duke Energy has found eight more corrugated metal pipes at power plants that store coal ash, after telling state regulators that the pipe that collapsed at its Dan River facility in early February was the only one made of the weaker material.

Wednesday’s public disclosure came as the utility’s growing coal-ash problem in North Carolina was also becoming Gov. Pat McCrory’s problem.

More than 100 people protested outside the Executive Mansion in Raleigh, demanding McCrory take stronger action to force the utility to clean up and prevent future disasters. And a national environmental organization has made a major purchase of TV ads laying the Dan River coal ash spill squarely at the governor’s doorstep.

“Pat McCrory has coal ash on his hands,” a narrator says in the ad, which will run for two weeks on every major network station and about a dozen cable channels in the Triangle and Triad.

Meanwhile, a statewide poll shows overwhelming support for lawmakers to force Duke to take action.

State regulators have been intensifying their scrutiny of all of Duke Energy’s coal ash plants and were inspecting pipes Friday when they were informed of the additional corrugated pipes.

Previously, Duke officials had said the 48-inch concrete and corrugated metal pipe that collapsed beneath the Dan River facility’s coal ash pond was the only one.

A second pipe, made out of concrete sections, also ran under the Dan River plant’s pond and a video camera inspection last month revealed it was leaking into the river. The company still says that those two pipes are the only ones that run under coal ash ponds.

The newly disclosed corrugated metal pipes had over the years been approved as part of the plants’ operations. The pipes form an L-shaped system that divert coal ash pond overflows into other basins or into nearby rivers. Some amount of wastewater is allowed to be discharged at safe levels, and is regulated by federal permits that the state implements.

Daily inspections planned

Department of Environment and Natural Resources staff on Feb. 20 began inspecting spillways where the ends of the pipes are visible at Duke’s coal ash plants. But when Duke informed the agency of the additional corrugated pipes, regulators worked through last Saturday to finish the job.

Regulators have decided they need a lot more information, and so will require Duke to send video cameras into all of its pipes.

DENR on Wednesday also told the utility to come up with a schedule within 10 days for the video inspections, beginning with the pipes made of corrugated metal, and provide those videos to regulators. Priority will be given to the Cliffside plant in Rutherford County, where state inspectors found a leaking corrugated metal pipe last weekend.

In addition, DENR will conduct detailed inspections of all 14 of the company’s coal ash plants next week. The agency is asking the company to provide engineering and emergency action plans and maps for all of the facilities – documents the company has been allowed to keep private under legislation passed in 2009.

A Duke Energy spokeswoman said the company would respond directly to the state and not publicly.

Rally targets McCrory

Duke’s widening problems are meeting with more vocal criticism. More than 100 protesters rallied outside the Executive Mansion on Wednesday wielding signs, calling on McCrory to get tougher on Duke, and demanding he further disclose what financial interests he has in the company, where he worked for 29 years. McCrory has said his only interest is a retirement account.

The rally, on a sidewalk across Blount Street from the mansion, was a gathering of environmental, government watchdog and civil rights groups. Many carried placards reading “Come clean, McCrory.”

There were no signs of the governor during the protest. McCrory has taken an increasingly strident tone against his former employer recently, vowing to force Duke to clean up the spill and make sure its other ponds are made safe. DENR has indicated it will impose fines on the company, and has begun reviewing all of its permits.

The protest and the ad campaign by the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council strike as the governor tries to champion a cause that has overwhelming support. The poll, commissioned by the N.C. League of Conservation Voters and released Wednesday, underlines the obvious: People don’t like pollution.

In this case, 9 in 10 surveyed knew about the Dan River spill and want state lawmakers to do something about it fast.

Ninety-three percent of those surveyed want the General Assembly to force the utility to clean up the Dan River mess at no cost to taxpayers or ratepayers. Eighty-three percent want legislators to force the company to move and secure all its coal ash storage. And 81 percent say lawmakers should act now and not wait for studies.

Seventy-seven percent said they are more likely to vote for a state legislator who “gets tough with corporate polluters like Duke Energy.”

The survey of 666 North Carolina voters was taken between Feb. 21 and 23 by the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling. The Dan River spill was discovered Feb. 2.

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