Point of View

Duke Energy had years to display some corporate character

March 25, 2014 

A broken stormwater pipe recently caused a major discharge of coal ash into the Dan River at a Duke Energy plant in Eden, and another more recent discharge was reported from a coal-ash pond at a deactivated plant in Moncure. These events and the fact that coal ash ponds with their highly toxic contents have been sitting in unlined ponds on the banks of waterways in North Carolina for decades are symptoms of flawed decision-making by Duke Energy.

Where is the character in the Duke Energy leadership?

In all those years, someone at the top of the corporate ladder should have come to realize that Duke was playing with – well, arsenic, chromium and cadmium! These are just a few of the toxins that leach from coal ash when exposed to standing water.

It shouldn’t matter that state and federal regulatory guidance was absent or ineffective (federal rules on coal ash storage have been under development for a long time). It is fair to conclude that Duke Energy knew for many years the ponds were rife with toxic chemicals, which are hostile to aquatic life, wildlife and humans, not to mention the long-term implications to groundwater.

After the 2008 TVA spill, someone at the highest levels of Duke Energy should have demanded the company move off square one and get started immediately on remediation. A lot is known about the chemistry of coal ash residues, their behavior in standing water and their migration through soil and manufactured barriers. A sophisticated utility like Duke Energy has an army of scientists at its disposal in addition to unlimited professional consultants who could have developed adequate remediation protocols that could have been implemented to replace coal ash ponds.

A thousand reasons could be identified why Duke Energy should wait for the EPA to hand it an approved game plan, but any fool could have predicted it was only a matter of time before some major discharge took place. The risk analysis would have to have examined the severity of the consequences if such failures did occur. No responsible, big-time manager of a large corporation would have wanted to proceed another day without taking the bull by the horns. If waiting on the EPA was the excuse, shame on Duke Energy.

The notion that a company wouldn’t spend money correcting environmental sins of the past unless and until regulators demand it is irresponsible. What about the ill effects to state residents if appropriate remedial actions are not undertaken? Sadly, corporate decision-makers probably believed all along that the company would never have to pay the bill no matter what transpired, because they would simply pass the costs on to customers.

The costs of restoring contaminated streams – including clean-up and removal of the coal ash that coats the stream beds after a spill such as the one inot the Dan River – when added to the costs of a future, belated remediation of coal ash pond sites are significantly higher than the cost of remediation efforts alone.

Shame on Duke Energy for being so irresponsible for so many years.

M. Randall Turner of Reidsville is a scientist who formerly worked in NCDOT assessing the environmental effects of road projects.

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