Duke Energy told us their coal ash dumps were safe – they were wrong

by Brian Johnson

February 4, 2014

We are confident that each of our ash ponds has the structural integrity necessary to protect the public and the environment.

That’s what Duke Energy says on its website in defense of heated criticism for how it handles coal ash, a toxic waste product of burning coal.

Now, as a disaster for a local river and the people who live near it unfolds, it’s clear that the company was wrong.

Duke Energy reported yesterday that coal ash pollution was spilling from its pond next to the Dan River Steam Station, located along the North Carolina/Virginia border. Coal ash typically contains toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. Up to 82,000 tons of coal ash and some 27 million gallons of coal ash-contaminated water have poured into the neighboring Dan River. The spill threatens communities that use the river for drinking water, and Duke has yet to stop the leak.

The spill is the second in the past month in which hazardous chemicals related to burning coal have threatened local drinking water. Freedom Industries spilled a chemical used to clean coal into the Elk River in West Virginia on Jan. 8, tainting the drinking water for 300,000 people there.

In the wake of the spill, Duke has professed its commitment to closing ash basins in a way that protects water long-term. But past words from Duke suggest that the company can’t be trusted when it comes to coal ash. Here are four reasons why, quoting from a 2012 Duke op-ed.

Duke Fiction: We’re accountable.

Fact: Accountable? Just last year, Duke settled with NC’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources over leaks from coal ash dumps near Charlotte and Asheville. Duke was fined for the contamination. The amount? $99,000. This for a company that reported $1 billion in profits last quarter.

Duke Fiction: It’s regulated.

Fact: Coal ash has escaped regulation. Despite containing a host of toxic chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency does not recognize coal ash as a hazardous waste. The EPA said last week that it would issue the first federal rules to regulate coal ash as a hazard in December. Investigations revealed that trade groups such as the American Coal Ash Association (of which Duke is a member) had until recently ghostwritten EPA rules and pressured EPA to delay its rulings.

North Carolina citizens aren’t protected under state law either. In 2012, a state commission ruled that Duke had not violated pollution standards at its coal ash dumps despite evidence of leaking. Active coal ash dumps are allowed to leak within 500 feet of their rims. Retired dumps don’t even face that regulation.

Duke Fiction: It’s monitored.

Fact: Duke does claim to monitor its coal ash dumps – though that didn’t stop the current spill, and it’s no guarantee against future ones. Scientific sampling determined that a separate, Charlotte-area dump had most likely contaminated neighboring Mountain Island Lake, which Charlotte and surrounding towns use for drinking water. The resulting legal settlement merely called on Duke to assess the sources and extent of the contamination.

In response to coal ash ground contamination that bordered downtown Wilmington, Duke proposed banning drinking water access for 17-square miles. A study published later that year determined that coal ash pollution was killing hundreds of thousand of fish and deforming thousands more in the nearby lake.

And how was the most recent spill at Dan River discovered? Not by laboratory instruments, but by a security guard who noticed the dump surface level had lowered.

Duke Fiction: Technology has improved.

Fact: Duke argues that precautions, such as liners around the base of its dumps, pave the way for safe storage of coal ash. Too bad Duke has left the dump at Dan River, like 13 other coal ash dumps in North Carolina, without lining.

At the end of the day, coal ash is just the tail end of an energy chain fraught with danger–from a chemical spill at mine mouths in West Virginia, to coal dump breaks in North Carolina. Added up, it is estimated that coal production and use causes Americans up to half a trillion dollars in health and environmental damages each year.

We can’t trust Duke to handle these toxic chemicals. It and other utilities should be forced to clean up their waste, then begin a shift to solar and wind energy that can’t spill and threaten our drinking water.

Brian Johnson

By Brian Johnson

Brian is a campaigner with Greenpeace's Climate and Energy Team. Follow him @BFWJohnson.

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