The Dan River as it appeared after the coal ash spill Feb. 5, three days after the accident. Gerry Broome / AP
Federal authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the massive coal ash spill into North Carolina's Dan River, targeting both the energy company responsible for the ash pond that leaked and the state's environmental regulator.
The subpoena of Duke Energy, the company at fault for the North Carolina spill, bookends a bad week for the U.S. fossil fuels industry, including a coal slurry spill in West Virginia and a fire at hydraulic fracturing well in Pennsylvania. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, pumps water and chemicals into the ground to release gas trapped in rock.
The coal ash spilled in North Carolina is a byproduct of burning coal to make electricity and contains harmful chemicals, including arsenic. So far, authorities do not believe the spill poses a threat to drinking water, although the ash spiked arsenic levels in the river, turning it into a chalky gray soup.
A conservationist in the area said it could be years before the spill is cleaned up, and a local paper reported Wednesday that the state Department of Health and Human Services has warned people downstream against touching the river or eating fish caught in it.
The nearest town downstream is Danville, Va., home to 43,000 people.
At a meeting of the Danville City Council Feb. 7, Duke Energy apologized for the spill, caused by a broken storm-drain pipe.
The spill, at the Duke Energy plant in Eden, spewed enough toxic sludge into the river to fill 73 Olympic-sized pools. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.
The grand jury subpoenas demand records from the company, which operated the now defunct coal-powered electricity plant which stored the ash. They also seek information from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, including emails, memos and reports from 2010 through the Feb. 2 spill, according to The Associated Press.
A Duke spokesman who confirmed to Al Jazeera that the company had received the subpoena said he could not discuss the details.
"We'll cooperate with the U.S. attorney on this as we will cooperate with any federal or state agency that might investigate the Dan River ash spill," the spokesman told Al Jazeera. "From the start, we have been transparent in our communication and recovery effort related to the spill and worked in a collaborative manner with state and federal environmental officials."
Prosecutors also ordered the state environmental agency's chief lawyer to appear next month before a grand jury.
On Tuesday, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), an environmental advocacy group, decried the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) request for a state court to hold off on investigating Duke Energy.
“DENR has been studying Duke Energy’s coal ash for years and has never taken action to enforce the law until conservation groups forced it to act,” SELC attorney Frank Holleman said in a press release, charging that the state's environmental regulators were too lenient on the large power company.
The group alleges that state regulators have failed to stop Duke Energy from storing coal ash in ways that threaten drinking water supplies.
“It is dangerous to store coal ash in unlined pits next to drinking water supplies and rivers, where it illegally pollutes and can spill catastrophically into our waterways," said DJ Gerken, another SELC attorney.
Duke Energy declined to comment on the content of the SELC press release.
Responding to Thursday's news of a federal subpoena, Holleman told local Raleigh News and Observer that the federal action is “as serious as it gets.”
He added that the state’s regulatory agency had denied his group’s efforts to obtain documents about Duke Energy.
"Now it's going to be a lot harder to stonewall a grand jury," Holleman told the paper.
The U.S. attorney's action follows other accidents in the region related to coal and natural gas.
On Tuesday, near Charleston, West Virginia's capital, more than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry, leftovers from coal processing materials that also contain harmful chemicals, spilled out of a preparation plant operated by Patriot Coal, blackening six miles of a creek with sludge that environmental groups say can cause negative health effects.
The slurry spill spurred jitters about the safety of water in the region, where many are still relying on bottled water for drinking and cooking.
Charleston and the surrounding region is still reeling after a Jan. 9 spill of a coal-processing chemical, MCHM, which entered the water supply after it leaked from a chemical storage tank along the Elk River.
Meanwhile, authorities in Dunkard, Penn., are trying to figure out how to stop a deadly fire at a Chevron hydraulic fracturing well that has been burning since Tuesday. The initial blast injured a worker, and authorities believe another worker who went missing in the blast is dead, according to local reports.
In the wake of the accident, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett assured the public that hydraulic fracuturing remains safe, according to the Pittsbugh Post-Gazette.
“Fires like this have occurred at other well sites around the country in the past,” Corbett said Wednesday in Pittsburgh. “I believe it’s safe. It’s been safe across the country."
With The Associated Press