By Rachel Emily Auton
Feb. 26, 2014. A broken storm-water pipe under a coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s retired power plant near Eden leaked as much as 39,000 tons of hazardous waste in to the Dan River Feb. 2. Appalachian Voices, a local environmental nonprofit, hopes this spill will push the Environmental Protection Agency towards the creation of the first federal regulations on coal ash disposal.
“It’s unfortunate that this happened, but we’re hopeful this will lead to stronger regulations, maybe even for the whole country,” said Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist for Appalachian Voices.
“We’ve been trying to get stronger regulations on coal ash for a while. Our efforts have certainly been hindered by the state, but they haven’t failed.”
Duke Energy has evaded three previous lawsuits by environmental agencies.
“There have been a couple lawsuits against Duke Energy for specific power plants. The individual suits were essentially blocked by a larger state suit,” said Chance.
“The larger settlement between the state and Duke got put on hold recently as a result of the increased scrutiny of the spill.”
The spill released enough coal ash to fill between 20 and 32 Olympic sized swimming pools, according to a statement released by Duke Energy on Feb. 3.
The coal ash contaminated ground water with levels of toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, selenium and lead up to four times higher than state water quality standards allows, according to sampling results issued by the North Carolina branch of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources(DENR.)
Duke officials released a statement on Feb. 8, six days after the spill, that the leak had been effectively sealed with concrete. On Feb. 18, Duke released another statement concerning the discovery of a second leaking pipe, which they claim has temporarily been sealed while they pursue a plan of permanent blockage.
Though the chemicals are no longer being released from the pipes, the damage may already be done.
“There’s still coal ash on the riverbed and that’s not going to go away anytime soon unless they do some cleanup,” said Chance.
In a statement released on Feb. 7, Duke Energy President Paul Newton accepted responsibility for the spill and pledged to take care of the surrounding environment.
“We apologize and will use all available resources to take care of the river,” said Newton. “We will do the right thing for the river and surrounding communities. We are accountable.”
Approximately 70 miles of riverbed are now covered in coal ash, according to Appalachian Voices. This settled coal ash poses a somewhat silent issue.
“One of the pollutants we’re most worried about is selenium,” said Chance. “It’s not that toxic to humans, but it’s toxic to fish in really low levels and it bioaccumulates, so it gets concentrated in the things that the fish eat and then gets more concentrated in the fish and so on. Selenium and other bioaccumulated metals could be big issues down the line.”
Appalachian Voices brought this and other issues to state attention in a petition event at Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte the morning of Feb. 25. Activists delivered a petition with 8,898 signatures to Duke spokesperson Tom Williams, which urged immediate clean up of the Dan River and ultimate removal of similar coal ash ponds at Duke’s 14 power plants in the state.
Governor Pat McCrory sent a letter to Duke’s CEO Lynn Good demanding that coal ash ponds be moved away from state drinking water sources. The letter, sent on Feb. 25 and cosigned by Secretary of DENR John Skvarla, calls for Duke to supply “all relevant information” concerning their ash ponds and future storage plans to DENR by March 15.
Subpoenas have been issued to both the McCrory administration and Duke Energy as part of an ongoing federal criminal investigation of the spill, according to documents released by DENR.
“We hope this will bring about stronger rules to the EPA,” said Chance. “Coal ash in the U.S. is one of the largest waste streams. Right now, it’s less regulated than even household garbage.”
The EPA announced plans earlier this year for the first federal regulations on the disposal of coal ash.
“Rules started being developed after the Kingston coal ash spill in 2008, said Chance. “It really drew the public’s attention to the coal ash issue.”
The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston spill, which released 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash, is the largest coal ash spill in history. The Dan River spill appears to be the third largest, releasing 35 million gallons of waste just 20 miles from Danville’s drinking water source, according to Chance.
“As a state, we will not stand by while coal ash ponds remain a danger due to their proximity to where so many North Carolinians get their drinking water,” said McCrory in his letter to Good. “We must look to the future of coal ash storage and how we can best protect the citizens of North Carolina and our environment.”
The EPA is required to meet a deadline of Dec. 19, 2014 to decide on the regulatory bill called the “Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act,” according to Appalachian Voices.
The EPA’s decision will either declare coal ash a special hazardous waste, which the agency has the authority to regulate or it will declare coal ash as non-hazardous, handing down regulation to the states, according to a transcription of the public hearing on the rule.
“It’s looking like coal ash won’t be regulated as a hazardous waste,” said Chance. “But it should be required to have some additional safeguards, hopefully.”
As for the average citizen’s role in the coal ash issue, the need for coal is reduced when use of electricity is reduced, said Chance.
“In terms of cleaning up what’s already out there, we can sign petitions to get Duke to clean up their ash ponds and to get the EPA to make everyone clean up their ash ponds.”
For more information on Appalachian Voices and the coal ash spill, visit Appalachian Voices’ website here.
To read McCrory’s letter to Duke, click here.