Duke Energy In Trouble Over Coal Ash Yet Again

Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River in 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/GERRY BROOME
Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River in 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/GERRY BROOME

Some two years have passed since North Carolina’s Dan River suffered one of the biggest environmental disasters in its history after a Duke Energy coal ash storage pond ruptured, sending millions of gallons of sludge into the river. Now, environmentalists are suing the energy giant claiming the company’s waste is polluting water bodies in Roxboro, a city about 20 miles from the Dan River.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed the lawsuit Monday in federal court claiming federal Clean Water Act violations. It wants Duke Energy to excavate the unlined pond the company uses to store coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal for energy, from its Mayo power plant. For decades energy companies dumped coal ash — the leftover waste from a coal-fired power plant — into ditches before filling these holes with water. Usually unlined, coal ash ponds or lagoons have been known to leak and up until 2014 they were federally unregulated. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Roanoke River Basin Association, alleges that coal ash seeps from a pond into the nearby Mayo Reservoir, a popular fishing lake. Environmentalists also claim Duke Energy is releasing coal ash polluted water into Crutchfield Branch, a waterway that flows through the ash pond dam into the Roanoke River Basin.

Coal Power Plant Accused Of Contaminating Neighbors’ Well Water With CarcinogensClimate by CREDIT: Julia Rendleman Frances Kerr and James Tinker can’t discuss why is it that Dominion Virginia Power…thinkprogress.orgThis is just the latest lawsuit the SELC has filed against Duke Energy, which last year pleaded guilty to various Clean Water Act violations, including some affecting the Dan River. Enacted in 1972, the Clean Water Act regulates discharges of pollutants into water, as well as quality standards for surface waters. SELC claims contaminants in coal ash, including arsenic, chromium, cobalt, and more, are reaching the Roxboro waterways located in Person, a county on the Virginia border.

Allegations against Duke Energy come as North Carolina legislators have been at odds with Gov. Pat McCrory (R) — a former Duke executive — over the state’s Coal Ash Management Act that requires Duke Energy to phase out wet ash handling and instead dispose of coal ash inimpoundments contiguous to power plants. The act, passed months after the Dan River spill, also creates a commission to oversee Duke’s coal ash clean-up efforts. McCrory successfully sued to dismantle the commission and has recently vetoed attempts to reinstate it.

Instead Of Cleaning Up Coal Ash Sites, North Carolina Legislators Want To ‘Bail Out’ Duke EnergyClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Chuck Burton As expected, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed this bill Monday evening…thinkprogress.orgWhile the act continues to operate in a state of regulatory disarray, two weeks ago North Carolina Superior Court ordered Duke Energy to clean up four of its unlined coal ash ponds, bringing the total number of court-ordered cleanups to seven. North Carolina’s largest utility has 14 different coal ash storage sites in the state. All have been rated as either intermediate or high risk, according to published reports. Risk levels determine how and when Duke Energy has to close its ponds. Low-risk coal ash ponds can remain in place while covered with a permanent cap, and according to the act, Duke Energy would not have to cap these ponds until 2029. Medium and high-risk ponds have to be excavated as soon as 2019, but as the McCrory administration is pushing the legislature to reserve the authority to revisit site classifications, enforcement is in limbo, environmentalists said.

In response, groups have resorted to forcing action through lawsuits as concerns for wildlife and public drinking water remain.

“Duke Energy needs to clean up this leaking and polluting coal ash pit,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a statement. “Citizens across Person County and North Carolina have called on Duke Energy to move its Mayo coal ash to safe, dry lined storage nearby, but Duke Energy has refused to listen to the citizens of the state.”

SELC wants a federal court to get Duke Energy to move the coal ash to a lined solid-waste landfill away from the water, and place a penalty of up to $37,500 per violation each day it goes without acting. SELC also claims in lawsuit documents that Duke Energy has a lined landfill at the Mayo power plant with the capacity to hold all the coal ash from the pond, and the ash from the ongoing operation.

Duke Energy declined to answer questions about this topic, but in a statement the company said SELC “wants to burden North Carolina with the most extreme, most expensive and most disruptive closure option, without measurable environmental impact.” The company said ash basins “are being closed in ways that protect people and the environment, making this yet another unnecessary and wasteful legal fight by SELC.”

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Holleman said the lawsuit could take years to be resolved.