A stormwater pipe under an unlined coal ash pond at a shuttered plant in Eden, North Carolina, burst Sunday afternoon — draining tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into the Dan River.
Duke Energy, which owns the Dan River Steam Station, retired since 2012, estimates that 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water were released from the 27-acre storage pond. The leak has at least temporarily been stopped, while Duke works on a more permanent solution. Coal ash is a toxic waste byproduct from burning coal, usually stored with water in large ponds.
The closest community at risk from the spill is Danville, Virginia, which takes its water from the Dan River about six miles downstream of the pond. No water quality issues have been reported so far.
“This is the latest, loudest alarm bell yet that Duke should not be storing coal ash in antiquated pits near our state’s waterways,” Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) told the Charlotte Business Journal.
SELC and others have been calling for Duke to remove ash from earthen basins such as the one at Dan River to more secure lined ponds to protect local water sources. Duke has 14 coal-fired power plants in the state, 7 of which have been retired.
In addition to air pollution, coal-fired power plants generate millions of tons of waste every year contaminated with toxic metals including lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium, and selenium — more than two-thirds of which is dumped into landfills, storage ponds, or old mines.
The Southeast is home to 40 percent of the nation’s coal ash impoundments, and according to the EPA contains 21 of the nation’s 45 high hazard dams.
The nation’s most notorious coal ash spill was in 2008 at a plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Just a few days before Christmas, over 1 billion gallons of coal ash burst through a dam at a storage pond and damaged or destroyed two dozen homes and 300 acres of riverfront property.
Late last month, the EPA announced plans to finalize the first-ever federal regulations for the disposal of coal ash by December 19, 2014. The announcement was part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought in 2012, by environmental and public health groups and a Native American tribe.
In October, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the EPA must review and revise its waste regulations under the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act. The EPA has never finalized any federal regulations for the disposal of coal ash — the nation’s second-largest industrial waste stream.
Duke has also garnered negative publicity recently for saying that they believe the utility is paying its customers too much for the surplus solar energy generated on residential rooftops. Duke currently pays solar customers about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, under a decade-old net-metering standard. Electricity generated by large-scale solar operations costs the utility just 5 to 7 cents per kilowatt-hour.