A year after Duke spill, work to do

A year ago today, most North Carolinians had never heard of coal ash, or at least knew almost nothing about it. That changed in a hurry.

They wouldn’t be told for another 24 hours, but as N.C. residents were prepping for that night’s Super Bowl parties, a stormwater pipe broke underneath Duke Energy’s coal ash pond north of Greensboro. Some 39,000 tons of toxic ash poured into the Dan River. It would prove to be the third-worst such spill in the nation’s history.

A year later, where do we stand? The state has passed the country’s most aggressive coal ash regulation, and Duke is starting down a path that will clean up the highest-risk sites. But the utility and the state are only getting started on important work still to be done.

The accident never should have happened. Duke knew of the dangers of coal ash and the potential for a breach. The utility had seen the TVA spill, the worst ever, across the state line in Tennessee in 2008. It was easier, though, to focus on shutting down power plants around the state while leaving the coal ash in place and hoping for the best.

The hole in the 48-inch storm water pipe in Eden showed that in fact the state and Duke had an urgent problem. The utility has 32 ponds at 14 sites, all perched near other bodies of water.

The legislature required Duke to close all the ponds over 15 years. Duke is poised to remove ash from the four most problematic sites this spring. Ash will remain at the other 10 sites longer. In some cases, the ponds are likely to be capped and the ash left in place indefinitely.

The new law is flawed in a few other ways. It allows Duke to seek to pass the costs along to customers, rather than to shareholders. Lawmakers also allowed Duke out from under a judge’s order that it could be forced to take “immediate action” to rectify seepage of chemicals into groundwater. And a politically appointed commission will oversee Duke’s excavation of ash.

All of that suggests intense vigilance by regulators and advocates is needed going forward.

As for the Dan River itself, studies say it is rebounding. But more than 90 percent of the ash remains in the riverbed, and it is far too early to know what effect those thousands of tons will have over the long term.

Duke says the catastrophe on the Dan River has transformed the way the company thinks about ash management. One would hope so. Now the utility, regulators and environmental advocates must be alert and committed to ensuring a cleaner future.