North Carolinians Pressure Duke Energy To Clean Up Coal Ash Spill

CREDIT: AP Photo/Chuck Burton

North Carolinians are pressuring Duke Energy to clean up the 35 million gallons of coal ash that spilled into the Dan River earlier this month.

On Tuesday, about 100 protesters gathered outside Duke Energy to deliver petitions with 9,000 signatures that call on Duke to pay for the costs of the Dan River cleanup. So far, according to WTDV, Duke’s clean-up efforts have focused primarily on the spill site, which has seen a buildup of coal ash as high as five feet. But the coal ash has also been affecting areas of the river as far as 70 miles away from the spill’s source, with coal ash as thick as 5 inches has accumulated on the riverbed across North Carolina’s state line.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has also pressured Duke to clean up the spill, giving the utility until March 15 to submit clean-up plans to the state.

“We are expecting a very aggressive plan from Duke,” McCrory said, “and it’s time for them to step up to the plate, and take some action. Show not only me their plans but the public their plans, first the Dan River, and second at the other facilities around North Carolina.”

McCrory also said he wants Duke Energy to remove coal ash from all holding ponds that sit on a water source in North Carolina, and the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources said Tuesday it may force Duke to move the 27-acre coal ash basin that leaked earlier this month away from the Dan River. That’s something that environmentalists in the state have been pushing for for years and that the state government has historically resisted.

Some think that resistance was due to a too-close relationship between the state DENR and Duke Energy, a relationship that may have set the stage for the Dan River spill. That claim has prompted a federal criminal investigation into the nature of Duke and the DENR’s relationship, and whether it caused DENR officials to be too lax with regulating coal ash holding ponds. The U.S. Attorney has issued subpoenas to Duke and the DENR, requesting records relating to their relationship going back to 2000. Following the spill, the DENR has rethought an earlier settlement with Duke Energy which would have fined the company just a little over $99,000 for contaminating groundwater, an amount that drew the ire of environmentalists and was branded as a “remarkable sweetheart deal.”

As the investigation moves forward and the cleanup is sorted out, the costs have piled up for the spill. One Wake Forest University professor found the spill cost at least $70 million in damage to fish, wildlife and other ecological aspects, an estimate he considers a “baseline” that will likely go up.

“It will almost certainly go up, perhaps way up, from there by a factor of 5 to 10,” the professor, Dennis Lemly, said.

Lemly has conducted extensive research into coal’s effect on wildlife. In a previous study, he found coal ash has killed 900,000 of fish each year in Sutton Lake in North Carolina, a site that has long served as a cooling lake for a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant. That study documented the deformities found in some fish — including curved spines, misshaped or missing fins, and mouth and jaw defects — that have been found to be consistent with elevated levels of certain toxins found in coal ash.