coal ash photo (RDS)

Duke Energy workers pass what remains of a coal ash pond at the utility’s retired Dan River Steam Station near Eden in February 2014.

What is wrong with Duke Energy?

The electric utility company has dumped more than 120 million tons of coal ash into unlined pits that sit in, on top of and beside our lakes, rivers, streams and drinking-water reservoirs across North Carolina. The coal ash is stories deep in groundwater and pollutes our clean water with toxics such as arsenic, radium, mercury and lead. The coal ash is held back only by dikes made of earth that leak. And these pits threaten the state with a catastrophe every time there is a hurricane, flood or storm.

After years of study and the review of reams of scientific evidence, the North Carolina environmental agency followed common sense and, in April, directed Duke Energy to remove its coal ash from unlined water-filled pits at six sites on Lake Norman and Lake Wylie, on the Broad River and in Stokes and Person counties. Duke Energy admits it can safely store this ash on its plant sites in lined landfills; the removed ash also can be safely recycled into cement and concrete.

But instead of protecting these waterways and the communities around them, Duke Energy has once more hired lawyers and gone to court — a tactic that will delay cleanup and impose tremendous costs on the state and the communities that the utility is supposed to serve.

Unfortunately, this behavior is par for the course for Duke Energy. Let’s look at the company’s track record:

  • Duke Energy was responsible for one of the largest coal ash disasters in U.S. history — the 2014 Dan River spill.
  • Duke Energy’s operating companies pleaded guilty 18 times to federal coal ash crimes committed throughout North Carolina, paid fines of $102 million and are on criminal probation today.
  • The federal grand jury discovered that Duke Energy’s own employees asked for a few thousand dollars to
  • inspect
  • the pipes at its Dan River site — inspections that could have found the problem that caused the spill — but Duke Energy executives refused.
  • During the last two hurricanes, flood waters inundated Duke Energy coal ash sites, flushing coal ash into our rivers.
  • People who live near Duke Energy’s unlined, leaking coal ash pits across North Carolina have been forced to abandon their drinking-water wells.
  • Duke Energy has been sued repeatedly by community groups we represent and by the state, with the result that court orders, the criminal plea agreement and a settlement require Duke Energy to remove all the ash from unlined pits at eight of its 14 sites. But Duke Energy continues to try to leave its coal ash in unlined pits in six other communities, continuing to pollute.
  • Duke Energy now admits that these six remaining sites are polluting water with arsenic, radium, cobalt, mercury and a host of other contaminants.
  • Duke Energy illegally withheld emergency planning maps from the public, despite being required by federal law to disclose them. Only when conservation groups we represent threatened to sue did Duke Energy reveal the maps, showing that coal ash spills at its remaining North Carolina sites would dump coal ash into many miles of lakes and rivers, bury roads and inundate homeowners’ private property.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, all coal ash is being removed from all unlined waterfront pits to safe, dry, lined storage or for recycling into cement and concrete — and the job is finished in some places. In Virginia, the state has directed Duke Energy’s partner, Dominion Energy, to remove all its coal ash from unlined pits, and Dominion has accepted that directive. In Georgia, Georgia Power is voluntarily excavating 21 million tons of coal ash from an unlined pit that is bigger than any pit North Carolina has ordered Duke Energy to empty.

And just weeks ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority agreed to excavate 12 million tons of coal ash from its unlined disposal pit near Nashville, Tenn., which is about the same size as the unlined pit at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek facility and larger than many of its other coal ash pits in North Carolina.

It is time that Duke Energy did the right thing. It should stop litigating and lobbying, apologize to North Carolina for its coal ash mess, get about cleaning up the last six sites in the state, and put its coal ash scandals behind itself and the communities it is supposed to serve.

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Frank Holleman is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.