Another Day, Another Coal Ash Spill

Between 50,000 and 82,000 tons of coal ash have poured into the Dan River from a closed North Carolina coal plant owned by utility company Duke Energy. The spill occurred Sunday afternoon after a stormwater pipe burst beneath a coal ash storage pond. 

Duke Energy has yet to confirm the extent of the spill but says that engineers are working to estimate the volume of water and ash that reached the river, and that the company will provide that detail when it is confirmed. The company did not notify the public of the spill until Monday, but Duke claims that it immediately notified regulators and local officials of the leak. Environmental groups expressed outrage that state environmental officials failed to immediately notify residents about a major toxic spill, reported Common Dreams.

"Storing large amounts of coal-related toxic substances in outdated earthen pits beside rivers and lakes is a recipe for repeated disasters and pollution," said Frank Hollerman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). A Duke Energy spokesperson said the company agrees that storing coal ash in lagoons is outdated and is working on developing methods using lined landfills to more safely store coal ash.

The latest coal ash spill comes on the heels of a recent legal settlement requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take final action on coal ash standards by the end of the year. EPA proposed two options for regulating coal ash in 2010 after a massive spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Kingston plant. While one option is more protective than the other, both would require that surface impoundments of coal ash have protective liners, mandate groundwater monitoring for landfills, and provide for corrective action when contamination is found (though the corrective action requirements are more extensive under the first option). Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in 2012 to compel EPA to complete a review of the regulations applying to coal ash and issue necessary revisions. The settlement consent decree, filed Jan. 29 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, requires EPA to publish notice of a final action by Dec. 19, 2014.

In the meantime, it has become clear that coal ash producers have failed to adequately address hazardous conditions voluntarily. Coal ash has already contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers with toxic pollutants like arsenic, lead, selenium, and mercury, according to Earthjustice. The organization has collected troubling stories of contamination and spills from 37 states, including Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Alaska, Kentucky, and many more, that are dealing with their own environmental disasters. SELC’s Hollerman said that the spill in North Carolina is "the latest in a series of spills and leaks into waterways, including drinking water reservoirs and upstream from drinking water uptakes, and groundwater."

Photo by flickr user Appalachian Voices, used by permission.

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