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A year after ash spill, open questions about Duke and the Dan

It’s been one year since a security guard at a Duke Energy power plant in Eden found a mysteriously drained ash pond as the Dan River turned the color of wet concrete.

The aftermath of Duke’s spill of 39,000 tons of coal ash, which flowed into Virginia and 70 miles downstream, kept lawyers, politicians and biologists busy.

Environmental advocates filed new lawsuits over Duke’s ash management as major stockholders demanded a shakeup of its board. Gov. Pat McCrory went on national TV to criticize the “quite poor” record of his former employer. A federal grand jury launched a criminal investigation that is still ongoing.

Duke says the spill prompted the company to rethink its ash practices. It formed a panel of outside advisers and is beginning to close its 32 ash ponds under orders of the legislature.

“It’s really been a very comprehensive year of work, and we believe our steps will lead us going forward,” spokesman Jeff Brooks said.

Legislation

Given 15 years to close its ponds, Duke will start at four power plants including the retired Riverbend plant near Charlotte. But the company’s disposal plans are already under fire.

Chatham and Lee counties are fighting a plan to dump ash from Riverbend and Wilmington’s Sutton plant into open-pit clay mines.

Enforcement

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources cited Duke for eight violations at seven power plants after the spill but has levied no fines. The state is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the spill and potential Clean Water Act violations at all of Duke’s plants.

EPA won’t comment on the investigation, which could cost Duke millions of dollars in fines.

Lawsuits

Lawsuits over water pollution from Duke’s ash at all 14 coal-fired power plants, filed by DENR before the spill under pressure from advocacy groups, remain before state courts. Federal lawsuits filed against Duke by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of advocacy groups also remain open.

“What’s striking is how little Duke and DENR have accomplished in this past year,” said Frank Holleman of the law center, which settled similar cases against South Carolina utilities. “Except for Asheville, where ash was already being removed, DENR has not required the removal of a single ounce of ash from any of these sites and Duke has not removed a single ounce.”

The city of Danville, Va., just downstream of Duke’s spill, has hired outside counsel to negotiate with Duke over damages.

“A year later, there’s still a stigma attached” to the river city, said spokesman Arnold Hendrix. “We still have people who worry about whether the water is safe to drink, and citizens who won’t swim or boat in the river.”

Cleanup and water quality

The EPA declared the cleanup of the Dan River done in July, after Duke vacuumed up 3,000 tons of ash and sediment. More than 90 percent of the spilled ash was left in the river. EPA said removing it would do more harm than good.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working with North Carolina, Virginia and Duke, is leading an assessment of the environmental damage. It’s likely to end with Duke paying for restoration projects in the Dan River basin.

A Duke-commissioned study in November found freshwater mussels are thriving in the Dan. North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported that the river-bottom bugs and worms at the base of the food chain are also healthy.

“All scientific indicators point to the fact that the river is thriving,” Duke said in a release.

Not so fast, said Brian Williams of the Dan River Basin Association, which advocates for the Dan. One year is far too short a time to gauge the long-term effects of the potentially toxic metals in ash on the river, experts say. Metals in the river bottom may recirculate into the water.

“We know rivers can heal themselves when you remove the source of the contamination,” Williams said. “But what happens when you don’t? That’s the big issue.”

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