Yet more coal ash problems for Duke Energy. What will force a change?

Gray water containing coal ash flows from a ruptured landfill at Duke Energy’s Sutton station in Wilmington toward Sutton Lake last week.
Gray water containing coal ash flows from a ruptured landfill at Duke Energy’s Sutton station in Wilmington toward Sutton Lake last week. Cape Fear River Watch via AP

It’s déjà vu all over again.

This past week, we have had more incidents of Duke Energy failing to safely manage coal ash despite assurances it could do so safely. At its Sutton site near Wilmington, thousands of cubic yards of coal ash breached in multiple incidents. Coal ash is now reaching the Cape Fear River. At its Lee site near Goldsboro, three retired coal ash sites were completely inundated by the Neuse River and released coal ash, which also happened two years ago during Hurricane Matthew.

Duke Energy’s coal ash management failures have quite the recent history. Duke Energy was responsible for the 2014 Dan River catastrophe and in 2015 pleaded guilty to Clean Water Act crimes for its coal ash practices at sites across North Carolina.

The most recent incidents, among countless other revelations and incidents since Dan River, remind us that Duke Energy’s coal ash mismanagement remains not just embarrassing but also dangerous and persistent.

Meanwhile, other utilities have figured out the benefit of reducing risk by recycling coal ash into concrete rather than maintaining it in gargantuan pits vulnerable to hurricanes or on the banks of a flood-prone waterway.

Duke Energy continues to fight — in court and the General Assembly — for “cap in place” of coal ash at six North Carolina sites, including Allen (Lake Wylie) and Marshall (Lake Norman), both of which sit on lakes that serve as critical drinking water and property tax revenue sources for the Charlotte region.

Despite scientific and engineering reports, risk mitigation and most importantly Duke’s own experiences, Duke Energy wants to hold on to its old coal ash practices. Why?

A few weeks ago, I decided to give up on maintaining my beloved 2002 Saturn after 240,000 miles. I finally had to concede that it wasn’t worth the maintenance, hassle, danger and even health impacts after I started getting fumes in the cabin.

I could have persisted in denial and wrongly believing that it functioned, complied with state regulations and didn’t hurt anybody. Those fumes? Could be some other external factor, naturally occurring or even completely harmless. This car has been great to me! But I had to break my denial and realize the need for a better, safer long-term investment.

Duke Energy’s coal ash sites are like an old, familiar car that that keeps breaking down and having problems. But my sons should not have to deal with either coal ash or my Saturn.

Unlike my Saturn, Duke Energy’s coal ash can sometimes actually be put to good use — recycling it into concrete as is being done in South Carolina and without raising rates. The concrete industry demands coal ash and in 2017 even signed a contract to import 350,000 tons from India. When it can’t be recycled, coal ash needs to be stored safely in dry, lined landfills properly managed and sited out of groundwater and away from rivers.

Yet, Duke Energy, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, and the legislature still think that even through hurricanes and floods, Duke Energy’s coal ash practices can continue with little change.

Lee’s coal ash flooded during Hurricane Matthew. Nothing changed. Duke Energy will list excuses and unique circumstances leading to Sutton’s incidents. Still, Duke knew the site was flood-prone. It’s only a matter of time before coal ash sites on the Catawba River have their own ‘unique circumstances’ around a disaster — with a much greater, denser population in the immediate vicinity.

Duke Energy keeps showing us it is not up to the task. Lawmakers, regulators, shareholders and Duke Energy itself must once again ask, is it time to give up on trying to hold onto and maintain old, primitive and dangerous coal ash storage sites? If they think there is no reason to change, have I got a great 2002 Saturn for them!

Perkins is the Catawba Riverkeeper. Email: