By Tuesday afternoon, a full two days after a coal ash leak was discovered at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant in Eden, the water nearby was still a disturbingly dark gray. Two miles downstream, observers found at least six inches of ash on the river’s bottom. Twenty miles downstream, flecks of residue were seen on the river’s surface.
The ash had come from a leak in one of two coal ash storage ponds at the Dan River facility. That leak, which had yet to be contained late Wednesday, has spilled at least 50,000 tons of ash carried by 24 million gallons of water tainted with hazardous chemicals.
And all this from a relatively small coal ash pond.
In Gaston County, next to Duke’s inactive Riverbend plant, are two large lagoons that hold four times as many gallons of coal ash as the Dan River ponds. The Riverbend ponds are located next to Mountain Island Lake, which supplies drinking water to some 800,000 people in Charlotte and nearby.
Like the Dan River site, these Riverbend ponds are unlined. Like Dan River, Duke monitors the coal ash ponds, plus the water around them. But as the Dan River coal ash leak shows, you can only monitor so much. The unexpected can and does happen. It’s time that Duke stopped betting that it won’t.
At Dan River, the unexpected was not only a break in a half-century old pipe that runs beneath the pond, but a discovery that sections of the pipe were made of corrugated metal, not the heavier reinforced concrete that Duke thought. At Riverbend, which has no such pipe, the unexpected could be catastrophic weather or the rupture of a containment berm, which is what happened in 2010 to a coal ash basin near Duke’s Sutton Steam plant near Wilmington.
What can Duke do? Clean the unlined ponds. Recycle the coal ash or move it to dry, lined landfills. That’s what two South Carolina utilities have agreed to do in settling a lawsuit with the Southern Environmental Law Center, Catawba Riverkeeper and other groups. Yes, moving the coal ash is more expensive than leaving it where it is, but it’s nowhere near the legal and financial cost of a coal ash failure that contaminates a water supply.
Duke also is facing a lawsuit, this one from state of North Carolina and environmental groups, over more than a dozen coal ash ponds, including Riverbend’s. The groups note that Riverbend’s ponds already are leaking small amounts of chemicals into Mountain Island Lake, something Duke acknowledges. The state says that Duke’s ponds, if left as is, could pose “a serious danger to the health, safety and welfare of the people of North Carolina.” Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration should be vigilant about protecting the public from that danger.
Former Duke CEO Jim Rogers said last year that the utility will ultimately “end up cleaning up” the Riverbend ponds, but Duke officials haven’t said when “ultimately” will be. They should begin, promptly, not only to remedy the leakage we know about at Riverbend, but to avoid the unknown there and elsewhere down the road. There’s no evidence that Dan River was the result of active negligence on Duke’s part. But it’s becoming negligent to wait and hope it doesn’t happen again somewhere else.
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