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The Dan River Coal Ash Spill: DENR’s Failure to Protect Our Water

By now, everybody in North Carolina knows that one of the largest coal ash spills in history just happened in our state. The leak started on February 2nd at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River Power Station. 140,000 tons of toxic coal sludge spilled into the Dan River, six miles upstream of a water intake facility.  From there, the story gets worse. Duke Energy apparently knew so little about their own facility, they thought the broken pipe was concrete, when it was actually metal. Weeks later, the facility was still found leaking, this time from another pipe. Arsenic levels from the leaking liquid were 14 times the level considered safe for human contact.

Photo by Appalachian Voices

Photo by Appalachian Voices

As it turns out, environmental groups tried three times in the past year to sue Duke Energy for violating the Clean Water Act with their coal ash impoundments. Each time, the NC Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR) stepped in and took weak action, settling for a total of $99,000—petty cash for the nation’s largest electric utility.  A federal criminal investigation into Duke Energy’s relationship with DENR has demanded more documents about coal ash ponds across the state, as well as information about payments and gifts from Duke Energy to DENR employees.  Meanwhile, DENR claimed it hasn’t enforced state laws because pollution wasn’t doing serious environmental harm. This, despite the fact that two neighborhoods in Asheville and Wilmington have had city water piped in because of public well contamination from coal ash ponds.

The spill has shown the absolute failure of DENR to protect North Carolina citizens and our drinking and surface water. It is a clear display of the agency’s “customer service” attitude, a cozy relationship with Duke Energy, and a lack of enforcement of regulations.  But there is still an expectation that North Carolina will have to clean up its coal waste.  With all the publicity over the spill and the federal investigation, even conservative legislators such as Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson) are interested in changing how Duke Energy treats coal waste. Appalachian Voices delivered over 8,500 petitions to Duke’s headquarters in Charlotte, pressing them to clean up their coal ash dumps. And today, DENR announced its plan to change the permit that allows Duke Energy to discharge wastewater into the Dan River. Duke Energy will have to move its coal ash waste to a lined landfill away from any waterways. The people of North Carolina need Governor McCrory, DENR, and Duke Energy do what has already been done in South Carolina—excavate coal ash from all NC’s impoundments and bury it in dry, lined landfills. We need our state government to step in and protect its people and our water supply, not cozy up to our biggest polluters.

For more information on the ongoing story of the Dan River Coal Ash spill, check out Southeast Coal Ash.org

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