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Duke: Customers won’t pay for ash cleanup

Duke Energy customers won’t pay the bill for cleaning up the coal ash-contaminated Dan River, CEO Lynn Good said Tuesday.

As Duke released its 2013 earnings, Good was asked about costs to remedy the Feb. 2 spill that dumped up to 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan.

“We will analyze the financial implications, we’ll work with our insurers and we will be accountable for this,” she said.

Duke spokesman Tom Williams later added that “customers will not be accountable for this. Duke Energy will be accountable.”

Utilities typically recover their capital expenditures by asking utilities commissions to include them in customer rates.

It’s not clear what the Dan River costs will be. The Tennessee Valley Authority spent up to $1.2 billion on a much larger spill in 2008 that is still underway in Tennessee.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, reported Tuesday that ash has washed 70 miles down the Dan River. It’s up to 5 feet thick near the spill site.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources also ordered Duke to stop the leak from a second stormwater pipe under the ash pond at its retired Dan River power plant in Eden.

A broken 48-inch pipe caused the Feb. 2 spill. On Friday, DENR said a 36-inch pipe also showed signs of potentially failing. The department told Duke to submit a repair plan within 10 days.

On Tuesday afternoon, the DENR said the leakage from the pipe showed high levels of arsenic, an element in coal ash. It ordered Duke to immediately stop releases from the pipe to the river.

Good said Duke has focused on responding to the Dan River spill and hasn’t begun to calculate how much the cleanup will cost.

“We’re also taking this opportunity to look at ash ponds in general around the state, and we would expect the closure of the ash ponds around the state to be a longer-term process for us,” she said. “We can’t close all the ash ponds in a short period of time, so this is something we’re going to focus on and work diligently on over time.”

Duke says it expects to spend $4.5 billion to $5.5 billion over the next decade, mostly in the Carolinas and Indiana, to meet environmental standards, including those on ash.

The spending estimate includes the costs of closing retired ash ponds and converting power plants to handle ash in dry form. They also cover the first federal regulations of coal ash that the Environmental Protection Agency will release in December.

Duke expects to recover those costs from customers, Good told financial analysts Tuesday.

Extent of spill

Federal biologists say a deposit of ash at the spill site is 75 feet long, 15 feet wide and up to 5 feet thick. Duke began vacuuming up the deposit last week.

Two miles downstream, they found ash 5 inches deep, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At the N.C.-Virginia line, 9 miles down the river, it was 2 inches thick. Traces of ash were found all the way to Kerr Lake more than 70 miles away.

What isn’t known is what the deposits will do to wildlife.

Officials haven’t seen any sick or dead fish or wildlife, including the dead turtles that were reported in downstream Danville, Va., last week.

But the wildlife agency is concerned that the layer of ash will bury river-bottom animals and their food. Ash could also hurt the gills of fish and mussels. Longer-term, high levels of metals in the water could be toxic.

“It’s still too early,” said Sara Ward, a Fish and Wildlife ecologist in Raleigh. “We’re trying to get to the point where we can do a more comprehensive look at that.”

Two species of endangered animals, a fish and a freshwater mussel, are among the wildlife that might be hurt by the smothering ash.

The 5-inch Roanoke logperch lives on stream bottoms and feeds in silt-free gravel. The James River spinymussel also fares poorly on a silty bottom. So does a second mussel, the green floater, that is being studied for possible listing as endangered or threatened.

North Carolina’s environmental agency said Thursday that aluminum and iron levels still break state water-quality standards about a mile downstream of the spill.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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