One Year After the Dan River Coal Ash Spill
A reflection of what has happened and where we need to go to address one of the most grave threats -- coal ash -- to our waterways.
This is actually a column that was submitted to the Charlotte Observer to run on the anniversary of the Dan River coal ash spill (2/2/2014). And while they have graciously run our OpEds on coal ash on multiple occasions, the Editorial Board had already decided to do their own OpEd. So, here's our on where we lie in making progress on cleaning up coal ash.
One year after the Dan River coal ash spill, how far have we come? Look at it this way:
This past fall, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation ran multiple full-page ads in the Charlotte Observer to raise awareness of coal ash pollution in our region. When the advertising agency wanted to photograph a water cooler full of coal ash, they asked us to get actual coal ash. Where could we get coal ash? Oh yes, the Dan River! Even in October, months after Duke Energy announced it had “completed” a cleanup of the river, it was surprisingly easy to find coal ash still blanketing the Dan River two miles downstream of the spill and to fill up a five-gallon bucket.
But wasn’t there was a cleanup? It turns out that Duke’s “cleanup” removed only a fraction – just 7.7 percent – of the 39,000 tons of ash Duke spilled. And even that tiny figure was overstated because it includes the mud dredged from the bottom of the river in addition to the small amount of coal ash that was removed.
I didn’t know doing 7.7 percent of any job could constitute completion of a job. The coal ash left behind is plenty accessible. Rain events and the natural meandering of the river will continue to churn up coal ash and all the heavy metals and industrial waste chemicals the coal ash ponds also contained. By no means has the coal ash been buried and isolated, and anyone who thinks so needs an education in river geomorphology.
The NCGA legislation passed in August was also only a fraction of what we needed. Of the 14 unlined, leaking coal ash sites around the state – just like Dan River – the General Assembly only slated cleanups for Dan River and the three sites (near Charlotte, Asheville and Wilmington) that Riverkeepers and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) had initiated lawsuits against a year before the spill. Four out of 14 sites? The state left nearly three-quarters of Duke’s coal ash sites unsecured.
The state and Duke said the other 10 sites need to be evaluated by scientists and engineers. Yet, the state’s (and even Duke’s) own scientists and engineers have for years known of issues to the point that in August 2013, the state filed a lawsuit that put it in litigation against all 14 coal ash sites. At that time, the state felt like there was enough science and engineering to file a lawsuit against the nation’s largest utility.
A year later, we at least have more awareness and public concern over this grave threat to our most critical natural resource – water. But we continue to lack good, substantive progress. The solution here is simple: move these old, unlined, leaking sites away from waterways to lined storage. Why would you allow to persist a situation with drinking water sources lying downstream of gargantuan mounds of toxic material piled up to 130 feet high and spread over hundreds of acres on the banks of our waterways?
The message has been received loud and clear in South Carolina. In August 2012, the Catawba Riverkeeper and SELC secured the first coal ash cleanup, which was of an SCE&G site that continues to clean up its ash ahead of schedule. Over the next two years, two more utilities – Santee Cooper and even Duke Energy – would agree to clean up their South Carolina coal ash. The companies aren’t bankrupt. They’re not even raising rates to cover cleanup costs. Santee Cooper went so far as to call its removal of coal ash, “a win for the economy, we have several businesses investing as much as $40 million creating jobs for the economy, and it's a win for customers because it’s financially the right thing to do and it eliminates a long-term potential problem with the ponds.”
One year later, we see it didn’t take a disaster for utilities in South Carolina to fully realize the threat of coal ash and to secure statewide cleanups. If Dan River failed provide enough of a lesson in 2014, maybe Duke Energy and North Carolina in 2015 can learn a lesson from South Carolina.