This is the first article in a two-part series examining North Carolina’s efforts to clean up coal ash ponds across the state. You can read the second part, looking at the impact of Duke Energy's Buck Steam Station on Salisbury, North Carolina, here.
Jenny Edwards’ heart sank the day the Dan River ran black. For the environmentalist, who had spent seven years working to promote the river as a community treasure, the massive spill of coal ash from a shuttered Duke Energy power plant was her worst fear coming true.
“To see it take such a blow so suddenly and to stand there hopelessly and see that even with the best efforts of Duke Energy, they couldn’t stop the flow,” she said.
It has been almost eight months since a stormwater pipe broke at an aging, defunct power plant near Eden, North Carolina, leaking 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, only 10 percent of which Duke has cleaned up. The station is one of seven coal-fired plants Duke Energy has retired in the state in recent years, though impoundment ponds of spent wet ash endure. Another seven coal plants remain operational as the power conglomerate works to balance out its generation portfolio with natural gas and nuclear.
The Dan River spill quickly sparked legislative action, leading to the passage of a new coal ash management law that went into effect last month. The law blueprints new mandates for Duke Energy to clean up its 33 sludge ponds at 14 sites across North Carolina, making it the first state to tackle coal ash management by law.
Still, state environmentalists say the law doesn’t go nearly far enough in protecting drinking water. All 14 of the unlined coal ash impoundment sites are leaking, leading toxins such as arsenic, chromium, mercury, lead and boron to leach into groundwater systems, according to environmentalists.
“Frankly, I feel that Duke Energy and the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] have quite likely done the best they can do within reason to clean up the Dan River,” Edwards said. “Sadly, their best efforts were less than 10 percent of the spilled coal ash. That demonstrates quite clearly that coal ash pits should not be along waterways, particularly where we draw our drinking water from.”
This March, a Wake County Superior Court judge ordered Duke Energy to immediately clean up all its coal ash ponds across the state, but the new law’s timeline trumps that order.
North Carolina’s new law requires Duke Energy remove coal ash stored in open, unlined pits at four priority sites — including the one that contaminated the Dan River — but allows cleanup and closure of the remaining 10 sites over the next 15 years, prioritized on the basis of environmental assessments. The law potentially leaves the door open to capping in place, a method that environmentalists say would not keep contaminants from leaking into groundwater.
Plans for excavations of the state’s four highest-priority coal ash sites must be submitted by Nov. 15, with full closures by Aug. 1, 2019, said Duke Energy spokesman Scott Sutton. “The legislation essentially formalizes what we had already committed to doing around the four sites that are named,” he said. The remaining 10 sites will be evaluated for contamination risk by the end of 2015, with all coal ash basins closed by 2029, he said.
“It’s important to dispel this notion that the law lets these other [sites] go on and on and on and that the only ones that are being taken action on is the front four,” Sutton said. “These are aggressive timelines.”