The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it’s struck an agreement with Duke Energy over the handling the February 2 spill that dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash into North Carolina’s Dan River.
Under the agreement, Duke Energy — the biggest electric power company in the country — will clean up the spill under EPA’s supervision, with consultation from federal wildlife officials, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. Duke will reimburse the agency for all oversight costs, as well as for all the emergency cleanup responses already taken. And if the company fails to comply with the agreement, it will pay fines of up to $8,000 per day — along with a $500,000 fine if EPA has to take over the cleanup work.
According to a filing the company made with the Securities and Exchange Commission, EPA has requested less than $1 million from Duke to date.
“EPA will work with Duke Energy to ensure that cleanup at the site, and affected areas, is comprehensive based on sound scientific and ecological principles, complies with all Federal and State environmental standards, and moves as quickly as possible,” said EPA Regional Administrator Heather McTeer Toney. “Protection of public health and safety remains a primary concern, along with the long-term ecological health of the Dan River.”
The agreement was hammered out under the auspices of the Superfund law, which underlines the seriousness of the incident. Coal ash contains elements such as mercury, lead, zinc, cadmium, and others, all classified as hazardous substances under the law.
“The Superfund statute isn’t involved unless it’s something serious,” Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Huffington Post. “Superfund isn’t invoked when someone just spills sand and dirt into the river.”
The agreement requires Duke to meet specific disposal standards in how it conducts the cleanup, including the use of synthetic liners, leachate collection systems, and groundwater monitoring. Once the cleanup is complete, the company will have to continue checking water quality to ensure no further action is needed.
Duke has already begun vacuuming up the biggest deposits of coal ash, including a 2,500-ton batch that piled up against the Schoolfield Dam near Danville, North Carolina. Fortunately, coal ash and its contaminates are relatively heavy, so they settled to the river bottom quickly. As a result contamination levels found in water samples did return close to normal after a relatively short time.
“Duke Energy is fully committed to the river’s long-term health and well-being. River water quality has returned to normal and drinking water has remained safe,” Duke spokesman Dave Scanzoni said Thursday in an email.
But officials do consider the spill a threat to wildlife, and have advised North Carolinians to avoid swimming in the water.
“Conditions resulting from the coal ash release at the Dan River Steam Station present a substantial threat to public health or welfare and the environment if not properly managed,” EPA stated in the agreement. “Human exposure may occur should large deposits of ash accumulate on areas used for recreation.”
The spill occurred in early February when one of Duke’s pipes collapsed, dumping the coal ash into the river and sparking a still-unresolved federal investigation into possible negligent oversight by DENR, and criticism by EPA.
The spill also scuttled a settlement DENR and Duke were trying to reach over possible groundwater contamination by the 33 coal ash ponds the company maintains in the state — which are located near rivers and lakes that provide drinking water, and which are unlined in at least some instances.
That lawsuit is ongoing.