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February 05, 2014

Yet Another Coal Ash Spill: This Time in North Carolina

Dan River coal ash spill - courtesy Appalachian Voices
The site of the Dan River spill in North Carolina. Photo by Appalachian Voices. See more photos here.

On Sunday, a stormwater pipe burst underneath an unlined pit storing wet coal ash at a retired Duke Energy coal plant in Eden, North Carolina, spilling up to 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River, six miles upstream from a drinking water source. Even more disturbing than that deeply disturbing news is that Duke Energy did not issue a press release and inform the public about this massive spill until 24 hours after it was discovered.

This event is far from over as the river is grey from the coal ash and Duke Energy has yet to implement a permanent solution to stop the flow of coal ash into the river.  

Officials are saying the water treatment plant will be able to handle the coal ash, which contains arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, and many other toxic materials, but I'm guessing North Carolinians in that area still aren't feeling very safe when they turn the tap on. And now the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources says the water is not safe.
Dan River coal ash spill 2 - courtesy Appalachian Voices
The Dan River after the coal ash spill. Photo by Appalachian Voices.

Sierra Club in North Carolina is responding to this coal ash spill with a coalition of groups. Unfortunately, the dangers of coal ash pollution are not new to the state Duke Energy operates thirteen additional coal ash waste pits in North Carolina, meaning more waterways and communities remain at risk.

Duke Energy is also responsible for the coal ash contamination of Mountain Lake, which is the drinking water source for 75,000 people in Charlotte. Meanwhile, its coal ash pollution in Sutton Lake kills 900,000 fish every year. And in Asheville, where Beyond Coal campaign is calling for the retirement of the Asheville coal plant, the old coal ash ponds are leaching toxic chemicals into the French Broad River.

Duke Energy and the state of North Carolina have known about contamination from aging and dangerous coal ash storage pits for years, yet have taken no action to clean up the waste pits and protect our waterways and our people. In fact, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources only took legal action against Duke's unlawful coal ash pits after conservation advocates like the Sierra Club forced their hand. Even then, DENR's customer-service approach would allow Duke Energy to continue business as usual.

As Grist's John Upton pointed out, Duke was quite confident their coal ash sites were all perfectly safe:

"We are confident," Duke's general manager at the power plant told the EPA in a 2009 letter, "that each of our ash basin dams has the structural integrity necessary to protect the public and the environment."

We know that confidence is far from reality.

Even Duke is changing its tune, as a spokesperson recently told the LA Times that storing coal ash in lagoons is outdated.

The Sierra Club calls on both Duke Energy and the State of North Carolina to be fully transparent with the public, releasing accurate and timely information about the scale of this latest spill and its consequences. As the spill is ongoing, nothing less than full disclosure and cooperation is acceptable.

Last week a settlement was announced that will require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will release its first-ever regulations for the disposal of toxic coal ash toxic waste product. But this deadline alone is not enough. These coal ash sites in North Carolina and across the U.S. are poisonous time bombs. We cannot afford any more coal ash spills.

-- Kelly Martin, Sierra Club North Carolina Senior Campaign Representative

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