Dan River

coal ash
Dave DeWitt / WUNC

The Department of Environmental Quality has made significant changes to how Duke Energy may have to handle coal ash at its basins across the state.

DEQ released a final report that ranks all the state’s 33 coal ash basins by threat level. Unlike its previous draft report released last December, this one classifies all of the basins as either high or intermediate risk.

Tom Augspurger (l), USFWS, taking core sample during February 8th reconnaissance of Dan River coal ash spill. (l-r) Tom Augsperger, USFWS, John Fridell, USFWS, Rick Smith, Duke Energy. Photo by Steve Alexander, USFWS..
Steve Alexander / USFWS

The state Department of Environmental Quality has issued a $6.6 million fine against Duke Energy for violations associated with the Dan River Coal Ash spill two years ago.

coal ash
Dave DeWitt / WUNC

February is a big month for Duke Energy to move coal ash out of its Dan River site.

With a new two-mile rail spur in place and machines moving material from large “ash stacks” – soil-covered mounds of coal ash - Duke Energy expects to double its current rate of progress.

Image of bottled water provided by Duke Energy to families affected by the coal ash spill.
Dave DeWitt / WUNC

Next month will mark two years since 40,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water flowed into Dan River as a result of a Duke Energy spill. The electric utility giant is working to clean up the coal ash at multiple sites across the state.

But legal infighting and regulatory delays have stalled progress at 10 of the 14 sites. Meanwhile some residents are afraid to drink out of their tap.

coal ash
Dave DeWitt / WUNC

Duke Energy is the largest electric utility in the country, with nearly $25 billion in annual operating revenue. And on a cold, blustery day at its Dan River site, that corporate power is on display.

Massive machines–40-ton trucks, front-end-loaders, and bulldozers–are moving in perfect synchronization, loading coal ash and soil into rail cars.

“This is priority one for Duke Energy right now,” says Jeff Brooks, a Duke Energy spokesman. “This is the most important thing that many of us have worked on for several years now. We have an army of engineers and technical staff that have developed the closure plans for these sites.”

Dan River
Steven Alexander, USFWS

In the fall of 2013, some Duke Energy middle managers had a choice to make. Follow the recommendation of an inspector and spend $5,000 on a video camera inspection of a stormwater pipe underneath its Dan River coal ash basin.

Or don’t.

Duke Energy, of course, chose the latter, figuring the pipes would be removed soon, so why waste the money?

A few months later, the corrugated middle-section of the pipe burst, sending 39,000 tons of coal ash into the river.

Duke Energy plant
Duke Energy

A few days after the General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act last fall, Governor Pat McCrory recorded a video and made a claim many in his Republican party have since proudly repeated.

“This bill makes North Carolina the national leader in acknowledging and attacking the coal ash problem that has been building for more than half a century,” McCrory says in the video.

Acknowledging and attacking hasn’t, so far, led to any moving of coal ash. And as far as being a national leader, it’s actually one of our neighbors - South Carolina – that may lay a better claim, says Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

PHOTO: The coal ash pond at the Duke Energy power plant by the Dan River
NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources

A deal has been reached to end a federal grand jury investigation into Duke Energy over the Dan River coal ash spill.

"We are accountable for what happened at Dan River and have learned from this event," said Lynn Good, president and CEO of Duke Energy, in a statement. "We are setting a new standard for coal ash management and implementing smart, sustainable solutions for all of our ash basins.”

CAMC
Dave DeWitt

For a century, utility companies in North Carolina simply dumped coal ash in nearby pits and ponds. But within the last several decades, other states have found uses for coal ash in construction and road-building, limiting the amount that makes it into the landfills.

During its second full meeting Wednesday, the Coal Ash Management Commission heard the many ways states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and South Carolina are reusing coal ash.

coal ash
NC DENR

Back in February, a storm pipe ruptured underneath Duke Energy's Dan River Coal Plant in Eden, North Carolina. Within hours, 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the river. It was the third-largest such spill in U.S. history.

In response, North Carolina passed the first-ever law to create rules for disposing of coal ash, a waste product of burning coal for power generation that can contain harmful levels of toxic chemicals.

Dan River
Steven Alexander, USFWS

The long road to determining how Duke Energy will clean up its 32 coal ash ponds starts today. The Coal Ash Management Commission holds it first meeting in Chapel Hill.

Among the many decisions the Commission will make is classifying the ponds as low, intermediate, or high-risk.

“The classification is really going to drive what the final closure plan looks like,” says Robin Smith, an environmental attorney and a former assistant secretary at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Duke Energy workers hammered and drilled along the Dan River boardwalk Wednesday morning.
Jeff Tiberii

Duke Energy is putting $10 million toward the improvement of waterways in five Southeastern States. The new Water Resources Fund was introduced Wednesday at multiple news conferences.  Duke has also announced plans to remove coal ash from three unlined dumps in South Carolina. But there is no immediate timetable for such removal in North Carolina. This comes almost eight months after the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Tourism is doing well along the Dan River in Rockingham County, a few miles upstream from the site of a massive coal ash spill in February.
Jeff Tiberii

Following a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River in February, The Department of Health and Human Services issued an advisory downstream from the site, recommending people stay out of the water. Now, after surface water and soil testing, state health officials say recreational use of the Dan River is safe.

 

It has now been almost six months since a Duke Energy storm water pipe ruptured near the Virginia border, sending 39,000 tons of potentially toxic material into the Dan River. Some of the effects have been marginal and others remain unknown.

Triad News Update

May 20, 2014
The Dan River flows through Danville, VA 22 miles down stream from the site of a coal ash spill in Eden. Officials say treated water there remains safe to drink.
Jeff Tiberii

    

Two Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to the North Carolina Senate last week to cut back on the threat of coal ash pollution in North Carolina. 

Coal fired power plant
eutrophication&hypoxia via Flickr, Creative Commons

In the immediate aftermath of last month’s Duke Energy coal ash spill, concerns were raised about the existence of similar pipes at other ponds around the state. Yesterday, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, DENR, confirmed the presence of eight additional corrugated metal pipes at Duke Energy coal ash ponds. 

The Dan River bank with residual dark grey coal ash.
Steven Alexander / USFWS

  

This week, the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, DENR, is testing fish tissue in the Dan River for contamination from the Duke Energy coal ash spill earlier this month.  The Southern Environmental Law Center claims they warned Duke Energy and DENR of a potential spill last year. 

The Dan River bank with residual dark grey coal ash.
Steven Alexander / USFWS

 

Earlier this month a stormwater pipe running under a coal ash pond in Eden ruptured. It did the following:

Tom Augspurger (l), USFWS, taking core sample during February 8th reconnaissance of Dan River coal ash spill. (l-r) Tom Augsperger, USFWS, John Fridell, USFWS, Rick Smith, Duke Energy. Photo by Steve Alexander, USFWS..
Steve Alexander / USFWS

Federal prosecutors have handed out more subpoenas in a criminal investigation stemming from the recent coal ash spill in Eden. The government is seeking documents from 20 current and former employees at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Prosecutors are also calling on those individuals to testify before a grand jury. The subpoenas seek records related to cash, items of value or investments that state employees might have received from Duke.

The Dan River flows through Danville, VA (cropped)
Jeff Tiberii

The federal government has issued subpoenas to Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The U.S. Attorney is investigating a suspected felony. The subpoenas dated Monday seek a wide range of documents, reports and photographs related to the recent coal ash spill into the Dan River. It’s not clear what felony the federal government suspects Duke or DENR of having committed. A metal pipe beneath a coal ash pond ruptured 11 days ago, sending potentially toxic material into the river. 

The Dan River flows through Danville, VA (cropped)
Jeff Tiberii

More than 100 people filled the city hall chambers in Danville, Virginia last night. They heard from federal and state officials about clean-up efforts following a recent coal ash spill in Eden, NC. A pipe underneath a coal ash pond there ruptured ten days ago,