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On Monday, the North Carolina Environmental Review Commission heard three hours of updates by state environmental regulators and a Duke Energy Executive on the Dan River coal ash spill.
“I’m sorry this incident occurred. We are accountable for what happened,” George Everett, Duke’s director of environmental and legislative affairs told the commission, which consists of House and Senate legislators.
On February 2, a 50-year-old stormwater pipe under a 27-acre coal ash pond at a shuttered Duke power plant broke, draining 39,000 tons of coal ash into the adjacent river. Everett detailed how the company responded to the spill which took days to completely stop. The company made several failed attempts to plug the pipe with a concrete bulkhead, but in the end it was the collapse of an emergency platform, burying the broken pipe in rubble, that stemmed the flow of toxic sludge into the river.
The Commission also heard that the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history continued to pose no immediate threat to public health, although residents have been warned against eating fish from the river or swimming in the water.
Tom Reeder, director of the North Carolina Division of Water Resources — a division of the Department of Environment & Natural Resources — testified that no fish kills had been reported as a result of the spill, but warned that the ash was now settling to the bottom of the river, endangering species found there.
Last week, federal authorities initiated a criminal investigation into the Dan River spill. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh issued grand jury subpoenas for emails, memos and reports from Duke and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources relating to the spill.
Authorities are also looking into the state’s oversight of the company’s 30 other coal ash dumps.
“An official criminal investigation of a suspected felony is being conducted by an agency of the United States and a federal grand jury,” said the subpoena.
Two North Carolina lawmakers, State Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca and House Environment Committee Vice-Chairman Chuck McGrady, have announced that they will co-sponsor a bill to address the threat posed by coal ash dumps.
Environmental groups have long warned that the states’ coal ash ponds are a disaster waiting to happen and that state regulators are too cozy with Duke Energy. The Southern Environmental Law Center has, on multiple occasions, attempted to sue under the Clean Water Act to force Duke to remove coal ash from unlined ponds.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory worked for Duke Energy for almost 30 years and still holds stock in the nation’s largest electric utility.
According to an analysis by Democracy North Carolina, McCrory received over $300,000 in direct campaign contributions from Duke Energy-related donors during his 2008 and 2012 gubernatorial races. The Republican Governors Association, which spent over $10 million supporting McCrory’s bid, also received around $760,000 from Duke.
Duke has about 106 million tons of coal ash at its 14 plant sites in North Carolina. About 84 million tons of coal ash are in ponds. There are 13 active ponds, which continue to receive coal ash, 14 semi-active and 4 inactive ponds.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced plans earlier this year 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.