Here is the proposal: We have millions of tons of industrial waste containing toxic substances, including arsenic, lead, chromium, selenium and mercury. We propose to dig unlined pits next to major rivers and drinking water reservoirs. We will dump the industrial waste into these pits and fill them full of water. These millions of wet tons will be held back from the rivers and the drinking water reservoirs only by earthen dikes that leak into the rivers and reservoirs. The toxic substances in this industrial waste will leach into the groundwater, which flows into the rivers and reservoirs, and in other directions.
Sound like a good idea? That is exactly what Duke Energy is doing on many of the major river systems and drinking water sources across North Carolina. In fact, what Duke Energy is doing is worse, because its unlined leaking coal ash lagoons are in most instances decades old, and their infrastructure, which was primitive to begin with, is aging. What is even more striking is that we are tolerating this method of storage by a publicly established monopoly that is the richest utility in America with great engineering capacity to employ safer and less polluting alternatives.
It should come as no surprise that this kind of coal ash storage results in failures and that there have been catastrophic failures – at Duke Energy’s facility on the Dan River near the North Carolina-Virginia border and at TVA’s facility in Kingston, Tennessee. It does not take a prophet to predict that other catastrophic failures will happen, and it does not take a rocket scientist to determine that a storage system like this will pollute.
There is a straightforward solution: Move this industrial waste to safe, dry, lined storage away from waterways or recycle it for concrete. That very solution is being implemented in South Carolina today. Just south of North Carolina’s border, the utilities have agreed to clean up every water-filled riverfront coal ash lagoon they own in the state.
This very day, coal ash in South Carolina is being removed from riverfront lagoons, and every day South Carolina’s rivers are somewhat safer. This is happening on rivers that run through both states – the Catawba-Wateree River and the Waccamaw River. Even Duke Energy in South Carolina has entered into a settlement agreement with conservation groups to remove coal ash from South Carolina riverfront storage, and South Carolina’s regulatory agency has entered into an enforcement agreement that requires Duke Energy to do exactly that.
But not in North Carolina. We are more than one year past Duke Energy’s Dan River spill and more than six years past the Kingston spill. Duke Energy stores coal ash in unlined pits at 14 sites across the state. Apart from Asheville where Duke Energy was already moving coal ash to a lined fill project at the airport, Duke Energy has yet to move one ounce of coal ash from a North Carolina coal ash lagoon to safe, dry, lined storage away from the rivers.
And DENR has yet to require Duke Energy to move a single ounce. Both have received criminal grand jury subpoenas. The North Carolina legislature did pass a coal ash bill, but that bill requires Duke Energy to clean up only the four sites that Duke had already committed to clean up – three sites where conservation groups and riverkeepers threatened to sue under the federal Clean Water Act and the site of the Dan River spill. There are 10 other communities and 10 other waterways still at risk.
The more that the scientists look, the more problems they find – for example, arsenic in a drinking water reservoir, contaminated well water, fish kills, polluted groundwater. All are unnecessary.
Every day, 3 million gallons of polluted coal ash water flow into North Carolina rivers from Duke Energy’s coal ash lagoons. Every day, groundwater is being contaminated. Every day, there is the risk of another catastrophe. It is long past time for DENR and Duke Energy to act to clean up North Carolina’s coal ash mess and protect all 14 communities and rivers across North Carolina.
Frank Holleman is a senior attorney
at the Southern Environmental Law Center.