At least 30,000 tons of coal ash poured through a broken Duke Energy stormwater pipe and into the Dan River earlier this month. The spill is the third largest of its kind in US history.
But that spill was much smaller than an accident in Tennessee six years ago.
It was the middle of the night, three days before Christmas in 2008 when part of a retention wall at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond ruptured. A dike failed and millions of gallons of potentially toxic waste were unleashed.
"It looked like a mudslide is kind of what it looked like. This material was moving not unlike a small moving lava front kind of thing," recalled a witness recalled to the Knoxville News Sentinel. In total 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash discharged.
(Coal ash is what’s left over when coal is burned to generate power. It has higher than normal concentrations of arsenic, selenium, and other potentially toxic heavy metals.)
The toxic sludge moved into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, devoured trees like they were toothpicks and blanketed more than 300 acres. The sludge damaged dozens of homes as well as farmland. The effects on animals and wildlife are still not entirely understood.
After the disaster, part of one river was dredged and much of the coal ash was removed and put in a lined landfill.
The TVA spill was larger than the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It led to loud calls for change, proposed rules from the EPA and congressional hearings.
Did anything change in industry practice after that accident?
"Virtually nothing happened," said Dennis Lemly. He's with the US Forest Service and on the faculty at Wake Forest University. Lemly has gone to the site of 22 different coal ash spills. He studied the damage to fish and wildlife, and the economic impacts. He says the industry has remained largely the same: "In terms of the type of permits and the type of construction used to dispose ash. Nothing changed either from the regulatory standpoint or the operational stand point, either at Kingston or at most of these other sites."
North Carolina legislative attempts
North Carolina has 14 which hold and 31 coal ash ponds on Duke Energy property. Environmentalists have said for years coal ash in unlined ponds or lagoons is contaminating waterways and violates the Clean Water Act. They’ve called on the ash to be removed and placed in lined landfills. Despite attempts to reform following the TVA spill, coal ash has never been regulated by the federal government or by North Carolina.
"I’ve sponsored a bill every session since then," said Pricey Harrison, a Democrat in the North Carolina House. Her legislation on coal ash clean-up was not well received. She says that she received major pushback from the utilities: "They were telling my colleagues it would raise everybody’s electricity rates. So we couldn't even get a hearing which is what, on controversial legislation, at least you get a hearing so the public understands what’s out there. So I have continued to file a version of that bill since 2009."
Back to the Eden spill
Now five years after Pricey Harrison's first try comes the spill in Eden, earlier this month. Some have called the contamination to the Dan River preventable. The spill has led to many questions, few answers and considerable criticism of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
A week after the spill subpoenas came down as part of a federal criminal investigation. Prosecutors want to determine whether any DENR employees illegally benefited from relationships with Duke. After all that Governor Pat McCrory and DENR announced this week they’re considering requiring Duke to remove coal ash.
"This is a good development but we’re still dealing with words and not actions," said Frank Holleman is senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. Holleman says DENR could go further. DENR has fairly broad statutory authority to force a clean-up where groundwater has been contaminated.
Meanwhile, Republican legislators Tom Apodaca and Chuck McGrady have said they will co-sponsor a bill seeking the removal of coal ash. But McGrady, the House Environment Committee Vice-Chairman, is concerned about the cost: "I have an expectation that how we pay for it is going to be one of the big issues. It’s going to be hard to figure out how to get them drained and where to put the ash and it’s going to be very hard to figure out how it all gets paid for."
The loose estimates for the cost of removing all the coal ash and putting it in lined landfills are not small – 80 to 90 million dollars.
Hope for change?
So if a monumental clean-up costs are in the works, and yet no significant legislative change followed the far more massive TVA spill of 2008, can we really expect much change?
"Well, there’s always hope," Lemly said. "The wind of change is blowing in the sense of switching from coal to natural gas. I don’t advocate for that for the save all for fish and wildlife. But, in terms of weaning ourselves off coal for an energy source, that’s going to help, but that’s not the solution."
Conversations and debates about natural gas drilling aside, Lemly says a possible resolution to coal ash could come from the EPA. The federal agency is expected to issue suggested regulations by December. The EPA could recommend classifying coal ash as hazardous waste which would require very specific disposal; it could suggest banning new coal ash ponds. Or, it could propose no change to how coal ash is currently disposed of.