Duke Energy Was Warned About Potential For Dan River Spill Decades Ago, Documents Show

CREDIT: AP Photo / Gerry Broome

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, dips her hand into the coal ash spill in the Dan River.

Duke Energy was warned decades ago about the possibility for leaks from the coal ash pond that spilled into the Dan River earlier this year, according to documents summoned by a grand jury.

As the News and Record reports, documents from the N.C. Utilities Commission show that reports from 1986 and 1992 point to potential weaknesses in a drainage pipe under an unlined coal ash pond that burst in February of this year, spilling 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27,000 gallons of contaminated water into North Carolina’s Dan River.

“Part of this pipe is constructed of corrugated metal pipe which would be expected to have less longevity of service life than reinforced concrete,” engineers wrote in 1986 in an inspection report on the coal ash pond. More recent reports from 1996, 2001, and 2006 also pointed to the pipe as something Duke should carefully monitor.

The reports could be important to the federal grand jury, which is investigating the February spill, because they show that Duke may have ignored repeated warnings about this particular coal ash pond over the course of several years. The grand jury has also summoned additional documents from Duke’s Dan River station.

In May, Duke and the Environmental Protection Agency announced an agreement for the spill’s cleanup, which Duke will complete under the EPA’s supervision. Duke will also reimburse the EPA for oversight and emergency cleanup costs, and will pay fines of up to $8,000 per day if it doesn’t comply with the agreement. Earlier in May, Duke started cleanup in the Dan River, vacuuming up the largest piles of coal ash — including a 2,500-ton pile that’s accumulated against the Schoolfield Dam in the river.

In March, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources cited five additional Duke power plants for improperly storing coal ash.

Coal ash, a byproduct of coal burning which contains toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and selenium, isn’t just a concern in North Carolina. In Kentucky, a lawsuit is alleging that Louisville Gas & Electric has been discharging coal ash into the Ohio River on a near-daily basis, causing fears that the host of chemicals present in coal ash are polluting the river.

“In the state of Kentucky — and in a lot of other states too — we can’t eat fish out of any of our rivers or streams, and it’s mainly because of the coal industry,” Thomas Pearce, Western Kentucky’s regional organizing representative for the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress.