The filing of criminal charges against Duke Energy for mishandling coal ash waste is a highly unusual event in the utility industry. But far from being an industry outlier, Duke’s lax approach to storing coal ash has been common practice in the industry, environmental activists say.
Duke drew attention, the activists say, in part because of the huge amounts of industrial ash the company stores at 14 sites in North Carolina. A massive spill of 39,000 tons of slurry from a Duke coal ash lagoon a year ago made the Charlotte power company a target for closer scrutiny.
“They’re reaping the reward of that notoriety now,” said Abigail Dillen, vice president for litigation on climate and energy at Earthjustice. “This is an industry that’s way out of bounds, and Duke has become the poster child.”
Duke’s spill didn’t compare in size to the more than 1 billion gallons of sludge that breached from a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pit in 2008. The Duke spill demonstrated, however, that such industrial accidents are no fluke and that coal ash storage facilities required closer monitoring.
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Within weeks of Duke’s February 2014 spill on the Dan River, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources became more aggressive and began citing Duke’s power plants for violations for illegal wastewater and stormwater discharges at coal ash lagoons.
The agency had previously sued Duke over groundwater contamination from those sites in 2013, but only after the Southern Environmental Law Center threatened to proceed with its own case.
Most states don’t require groundwater testing around ash storage lagoons, making it difficult to assess if the sites are percolating chemical elements and heavy metals. Periodic efforts to assess the safety of coal ash pits have resulted in disturbing findings.
In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a report assessing several dozen instances of ecological damage caused by hundreds of coal ash basins nationwide. Among the incidents the agency cited: discolored well water, spills, deformed fish and numerous public warnings not to eat fish swimming and breeding in ash-contaminated waters.
In North Carolina, the EPA documented declines of fish populations caused by selenium accumulations in Hyco Lake at the Roxboro Steam Station, then owned by Carolina Power & Light.
Selenium buildup in the cooling reservoir for Duke’s Belews Lake Steam Station resulted in the elimination of 16 of 20 fish species in the lake.
The United States has more than 1,000 ash pits and closed pits, and more than 200 incidents of contamination and spills, according to an Earthjustice digital mapping project.
Most of the sites are concentrated in the South, Northeast and Midwest, regions that for decades were heavily reliant on heavy industry powered by coal.
“Wherever you look and get monitoring data, you find groundwater contamination,” Dillen said.