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What would flood if a Duke Energy coal ash dam broke? Advocates want you to know.

Duke Energy engineers and contractors survey the site of a coal ash spill at the Dan River power plant in Eden in this 2014 photo. Environmental groups say they will sue Duke for not giving the public access to maps that show areas that would flood if coal ash dams fail.
Duke Energy engineers and contractors survey the site of a coal ash spill at the Dan River power plant in Eden in this 2014 photo. Environmental groups say they will sue Duke for not giving the public access to maps that show areas that would flood if coal ash dams fail. AP

Environmental groups say they will sue Duke Energy for not telling the public what would happen if any of its dozens of coal ash dams fail.

Duke’s 31 North Carolina coal ash basins hold 111 million tons of ash in water-filled ponds. Ash holds metals that can contaminate rivers, lakes and groundwater.

The massive rupture of a Tennessee Valley Authority dike in 2008 first made coal ash an environmental issue. Duke spilled its own ash into the Dan River in 2014, although not from a dam collapse, and paid $102 million to settle federal criminal charges.

The Environmental Protection Agency adopted a rule in 2015 that requires utilities to file emergency action plans for ash spills. Utilities have to post information on their compliance with the rule on public websites.

Duke posted online emergency plans for each of its coal-fired power plants, and they’re shared with emergency response agencies. But the plans available online black out some information, including maps that show areas that would be flooded by an ash dam failure.

Duke says the maps aren’t public because they hold “sensitive public security information,” which North Carolina law defines as details that might aid an attacker.

Notices of intent to sue Duke filed by environmental groups Wednesday, however, say federal law doesn’t allow those exceptions. The groups say Duke is the only U.S. utility that withholds parts of its emergency plans from the public.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing eight environmental groups, sent the notices regarding emergency plans for 10 North Carolina power plants. The power plants include Allen on Lake Wylie and Marshall on Lake Norman.

The public interest law firm Earthjustice filed similar notices Wednesday for four Duke facilities in Kentucky and Indiana.

“Duke Energy is scared of the public reaction when people learn how much of their communities will be devastated by coal ash and toxic water pollution if Duke Energy’s dangerous coal ash storage sites fail,” Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center said in a statement. The law center has sued Duke numerous times over coal ash.

Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert, in response, cast the filings as “the latest attempt to use fear and the courts to upend public policy that directs the safe closure of hundreds of ash basins across the nation.”

Culbert said Duke, in deleting the maps from the emergency plans, believed it was complying with state law that protects critical infrastructure. She added that Duke will review the approach taken by other utilities and ask state regulators for guidance.

Emergency management agencies see the full version of the plans, Duke noted. The company says its ash basins are inspected weekly and are safe.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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