The Dan River coal ash spill, one year later
On February 2, 2014, 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash began to pour from a Duke Energy coal ash lagoon into the Dan River just outside of Eden, NC, through a ruptured storm water drainpipe. Some of that ash was recovered, but one year later, over 90%—some 36,000 tons—remains in the river.
In fact, the Dan River site is the smallest coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. Millions of additional tons of ash remain in wet, unlined, leaky pits next to major waterways throughout the state, and the entire Southeast. The cleanup of those pits is more important than ever, because Duke Energy has shown that utilities cannot clean up a river once they have spilled coal ash into it.
One year after Dan River, SELC can point to some major successes in our quest to protect the South’s waterways from coal ash pollution:
- In South Carolina, all three utilities, including Duke Energy, have now committed to cleaning up a total of 16.6 million tons of coal ash. Some of that cleanup, secured through agreements with SELC, is actually underway—and ahead of schedule.
- In North Carolina Duke has promised—albeit in a non-binding fashion as yet—to clean up not only the remaining ash on the Dan River, but also at three other sites where SELC and our client conservation groups and riverkeepers had previously taken legal action.
- If Duke follows through on its North Carolina commitments, total cleanup in both North and South Carolina would add up to some 33.8 million tons of coal ash. That tonnage equates roughly to 771 Exxon Valdez-sized tankers—a line of ships that would stretch over 140 miles long.*
And our work to add to this total goes on:
- In North Carolina we continue to represent citizens in their quest to clean up the remaining 10 coal ash sites across the state.
- In Virginia, we have taken legal action at sites on the Potomac and Elizabeth Rivers to compel a cleanup.
- We have added Tennessee to our coal ash initiative with legal action to clean up TVA’s Gallatin plant on the Cumberland River near Nashville.
- And we continue to advocate for stronger protections at the state and national level.
On the one-year anniversary of Dan River, state and local media wrote over 100 stories reflecting on the spill and its aftermath. Here are some excerpts:
“We’ve got to get it out of these unlined pits and we have to get it to safe, lined storage,” says Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Every day we run the risk of another Dan River disaster. And, in effect, we’re having a spill every day in North Carolina. All of these sites are leaking. Some of them, staggeringly.”
The new law is flawed in a few other ways. It allows Duke to seek to pass the costs along to customers, rather than to shareholders. Lawmakers also allowed Duke out from under a judge’s order that it could be forced to take “immediate action” to rectify seepage of chemicals into groundwater. And a politically appointed commission will oversee Duke’s excavation of ash.
All of that suggests intense vigilance by regulators and advocates is needed going forward.
“The catastrophe we had at the Dan River facility was at the smallest site in North Carolina,” said Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill. “If it had been at one of the bigger sites, we’d have had an even bigger catastrophe.”
Holleman doesn’t give state government high marks for its response to the spill and the larger issue of coal ash. The new state law is fine, but no real action has been taken against any of Duke’s ash lagoons by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, he said.
“Here we are, one year after the spill, and DENR has not required Duke to clean up anything anywhere,” Holleman said. “Not one ounce of coal ash.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued Duke over ash pollution, says it will challenge the legality of such permits.
“Duke has been openly leaking for years. Now they’re asking DENR to give them amnesty,” said senior attorney Frank Holleman. “Can you imagine us allowing any municipality or county in the state to permit a wastewater treatment plant that leaks in multiple ways?”
The Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River, upstream from the Hampton Roads water supply, was an alarming example of the supine oversight that results when powerful companies have their way with intimidated regulators.
*The Exxon Valdez, a 987-foot long oil tanker, spilled approximately 42,000 tons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska in March 1989.