On Monday afternoon, Duke Energy reported that one its coal ash lagoons on the banks of the Dan River was spilling tens of millions of gallons of polluted coal ash sluice into the river. When I visited the river Tuesday, the ash was still spilling, the river was completely gray more than 2 miles downstream and at least 6 inches of ash blanketed the bottom of the river.
We do not know how bad the damage is, but one thing is certain: This is yet another wake-up call.
Duke stores millions of tons of coal ash in unlined earthen lagoons throughout North Carolina, perched 80 feet above the rivers and lakes that belong to all of us and provide our drinking water. If Duke has its way, all that coal ash will remain in unlined lagoons next to our rivers and lakes forever. That is, until another pipe bursts, dam collapses or major storm wipes out a berm. Then we will have yet another spill, releasing coal ash contaminants including arsenic, mercury, selenium, lead and industrial chemical wastes into our waters.
The next spill could be at Duke’s Riverbend plant, where millions of tons of ash are perched high above Mountain Island Lake, the drinking water reservoir for the entire Charlotte metropolitan area. It could be at Sutton Lake, a popular destination for sport and subsistence fishing near Wilmington where one of the berms partially collapsed a few years ago. It could be at Belews Creek, the largest coal ash lagoon in the state, where over 4 billion gallons of wet coal ash are held back only by leaking earthen dams.
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Take your pick. There are 14 coal ash sites around the state, and most have more than one unlined lagoon. Many, like Dan River, have dams rated as High Hazard. And all of the lagoons leak. In fact, North Carolina recently sued Duke for unpermitted discharges and violations of groundwater standards at all 14 sites, including Dan River.
Unfortunately, DENR never enforced the law until we and other conservation groups gave notice that we would enforce the law if DENR would not. DENR and Duke then proposed a quick settlement that did not require a cleanup. Almost 5,000 people wrote DENR opposing this sweetheart deal.
Last month, coal-related chemicals spilled into the Elk River in West Virginia, contaminating drinking water for 300,000 people. And December marked the fifth anniversary of the catastrophic Kingston, Tenn., coal ash spill. What these incidents teach us is that we cannot store toxic coal waste on the banks of our lakes and rivers. Accidents and mistakes will happen. In the meantime, unlined lagoons leak. That’s a slow-motion spill happening across our state every day.
Fortunately, there is a solution. South Carolina leads the nation in cleaning up its coal ash lagoons. Thanks to legal action by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and other local groups, South Carolina’s utilities – SCE&G and Santee Cooper – have committed to cleaning up millions of tons of coal ash that were polluting waterways. The ash will be recycled or stored dry in properly designed, lined landfills.
That leaves Duke Energy as the only utility in the Carolinas still clinging to the dangerous practice of storing toxic coal ash behind leaking earthen dams and hoping for the best. If Duke won’t act, DENR needs to step up.
Gov. Pat McCrory – a former longtime Duke Energy employee – appoints the head of DENR. No one is in a better position to tell Duke Energy to move its coal ash away from Charlotte’s drinking water. The West Virginia governor ordered the outdated storage containers away from the Elk River after the spill. Let’s hope McCrory acts before a disaster happens.
Before he retired, Duke CEO Jim Rogers spoke about the coal ash at Mountain Island Lake. He said, “We’ll ultimately end up cleaning up all that.” The question is, will that happen before or after the next spill?
Sam Perkins of Charlotte is the Catawba Riverkeeper.