Duke: Even after spill, we still expect regulators to side with us on coal ash

by Brian Johnson

February 20, 2014

People in canoes maneuver in the Dan River where a coal ash spill changes the color of the river in Eden, North Carolina on February 4, 2014. Duke Energy said that 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water were released from a pond at its retired power plant in Eden, North Carolina into the Dan River, and were still flowing. Duke said a 48-inch stormwater pipe beneath the unlined ash pond broke February 2, 2014. Water and ash from the 27-acre pond drained into the pipe. Photo by Jason E. Miczek

©Jason Miczek/Greenpeace

After the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history, and in the midst of a federal criminal investigation, youd think executives at Duke Energy would be getting ready for a little more scrutiny when it comes to their coal ash waste.

Apparently not. Speaking at Dukes quarterly earnings call on Tuesday, Duke executive vice president Keith Trent stated We do expect [coal ash] will be designated as nonhazardous. That’s the general assumption that we’re working with.

Trent was referring to the federal Environmental Protection Agencys planned decision on how to regulate coal ash, the leftover waste from burning coal to fuel power plants. The EPA is considering two options for coal ash regulation: A rule that would regulate the substance as a hazardous waste, and a lenient one, favored by polluters like Duke, that would label it non-hazardous.

On its face, Trents prediction that the EPA would label coal ash non-hazardous would seem absurd, especially given the current context. Coal ash contains harmful amounts of toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. The recent coal ash spill at Dukes Dan River Station in North Carolina extended 70 miles, threatening water supplies and halting recreational use of Dan River. Arsenic levels in the river have been measured at 14 times higher than the level safe for humans. And health officials have advised Virginia and North Carolina residents not to even touch the rivers water, let alone swim in it or fish from it. Does that sound non-hazardous to you?

But look deeper, and Dukes arrogance comes from a long history of successfully avoiding regulation. Documents suggest that Duke and other utility lobbyists met with White House officials to push a non-hazardous designation before the EPA options were even released.

Thanks to Dukes lobbying, the EPA has only recently restarted its coal ash decision, having sat on the proposal for four years.

And an investigation revealed that the American Coal Ash Association (of which Duke is a member) had ghostwritten EPA publications on coal ash for the majority of the previous decade.

EPA has announced that it will make its decision on coal ash by December of this year. It will be a decisive moment to see whether President Obamas EPA stands with people or polluters. Will it prove Duke Energys brazen prediction correct, and label coal ash non-hazardous even after the Dan River disaster?

Or will the agency do its job and simply call coal ash what it is: hazardous to the point that it renders our rivers untouchable when an accident happens?

We can only hope that this time the agency sides with peoples health, not Dukes lobbyists. Otherwise the next Dan River disaster wont be far away.

Brian Johnson

By Brian Johnson

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

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