Southern Environmental Law Center

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.

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.”

Oil drilliing

A new economic assessment is the latest effort in the ongoing fight over possible oil exploration off the North Carolina coast.

Dave DeWitt

Enviva, the embattled wood-pellet manufacturer, has announced a $5 million conservation program designed to save some of North Carolina’s environmentally sensitive forests.

Enviva has been under fire from critics for using whole hardwood trees to make the majority of the wood pellets it produces, instead of wood waste. At its two plants in North Carolina, more than 85 percent of the wood comes from hardwood trees.

Dave DeWitt

Trucks carrying long logs stream into the wood pellet plant on the edge of Ahoskie all day, every day. The facility, owned by a company called Enviva, was an abandoned saw mill just five years ago. Now, it towers over the adjacent Wal-Mart and Hardees, spewing white smoke.

Along the fence that encircles the plant, logs are stacked 40-feet high. Longleaf pine, southern red oak, white ash - pretty much every tree species that grows in the southeast could be used to make wood pellets.

red wolf
Dave DeWitt / WUNC

Conservation groups notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today that they intend to sue the federal agency over its management of the Red Wolf Recovery Program.

The groups say the Fish and Wildlife Service has failed in its responsibility to protect red wolves. The nearly 30-year old program is an effort to re-introduce the animals that were extinct in the wild.

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

North Carolina state lawmakers and officials are vowing to fight the Obama Administration’s new clean power plant rules.

red wolf
Dave DeWitt / WUNC

The Red Wolf Recovery program in eastern North Carolina will continue – at least for now. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that the 27-year old program will require some changes and further review. The agency will not release new animals into the wild while it studies the program further.

About 50-75 wild red wolves currently roam a five-county area on the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula.

An image of Herbert C. Bonner Bridge
Smkybear / Wikimedia Commons

The Herbert C. Bonner Bridge is old— 52 years old, to be exact. Since 1963, the aging Bonner Bridge has connected the Oregon Inlet to Rodanthe in Dare Co. and served as a link from Hatteras Island to the mainland. After years of repairs and legal tangles, the bridge is now being replaced by a new parallel bridge.

Lee County coal ash
Dave DeWitt

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced today that it has approved the necessary permits to transform two abandoned clay mines into coal ash storage pits.

Duke Energy intends to ship coal ash from several of its facilities across the state to the Colon Mine Site in Lee County and the Brickhaven No. 2 Mine Tract “A” in Chatham County. It was awaiting the DENR permits before it began moving ash. The Lee and Chatham County facilities will be the first lined coal ash pits in the state.

A Marcellus Shale drill rig in Pennsylvania used in the fracking process.
Ken Skipper, USGS

Advocates against fracking have won a temporary legal victory. A Wake County superior court judge has issued an injunction against awarding permits – effectively reinstating a fracking moratorium. 

The temporary injunction goes into effect today. It stops the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission from reviewing any fracking permits.

A map of Duke Energy's 14 coal ash sites and their operational status in 14 energy plants across the state.
Duke Energy

Duke Energy’s plan to dispose of coal ash in abandoned clay mines in two North Carolina counties may hit a snag.

If coal waste was trash from your kitchen trash can, and ended up in a private landfill, the owners of that landfill would be required to pay a host fee of $2 per ton of trash.

Duke Energy’s plan to dispose of 20 million tons of coal ash in abandoned clay mines in Lee and Chatham counties should come under the same rules, say officials in Lee County.

Aerial photo: Duke Energy's coal burning facility near Salisbury, N.C.
Waterkeeper Alliance

Officials at the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources have filed suits and threatened to fine Duke over coal ash contamination.

Attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center are focusing on plants in Chatham, Rowan and Wayne counties. Attorney Frank Holloman says the toxic hexavalent chromium has been seeping from the Buck Steam station in Rowan County.

"All of these are substances you do not want in these quantities, in your drinking water, in your body, in what your children eat or drink, or for that matter in your fish and wildlife."

Morning on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Outer Banks Real Estate / Flickr Creative Commons

A provision in the proposed budget deal would allow the governor to bypass environmental reviews for road projects along the coast.

It indicates that during a state of emergency, the governor could issue an executive order to waive the required environmental permits to replace state highways along the Atlantic.

The provision is said to be a recourse for municipalities whose sole access to the mainland is a state highway.

Southern Environmental Law Center

A North Carolina environmental agency is appealing a recent ruling that called for immediate action to stop groundwater contamination, caused by coal ash.

The Environmental Management Commission (EMC) is a state regulatory panel. Its members are currently appointed by three republican lawmakers. Two years ago the EMC said it didn't have the authority to force Duke Energy to clean up the causes of groundwater contamination at 14 sites around the state. Environmentalists filed a lawsuit, claiming the EMC wasn't properly reading or enforcing the law. State judge Paul Ridgeway agreed with that take last month, telling the agency it had authority to mandate that Duke deal with contaminants.

Now, that same agency is appealing the judge's ruling. 

"So the state is now on the same side of this appeal as Duke Energy, defending Duke against our effort to enforce the law against them," said DJ Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who called this appeal astonishing. 

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

Officials with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have announced they are abandoning a proposed settlement with Duke Energy over the clean-up of coal ash. The proposed settlement would have levied Duke with a $99,000 fine, but had no requirement to remove or clean-up coal ash at two sites in the state. 

The Riverbend steam station along the Catawba River was retired in 2013.

On Friday the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) announced it plans to modify Duke Energy water permit. Those water permits are administered by the state and adhere to federal guidelines for discharge. DENR says it plans to change permits so that Duke would be required to remove all coal ash from unlined pits at two plants - one along Lake Catawba near Charlotte, the other outside of Asheville. The changes would also call for Duke to dewater and close coal ash ponds at Lake Sutton (outside of Wilmington).

Tom Augspurger, USFWS, taking core sample as EPA's Alan Humphrey documents the ash bar during February 8th reconnaissance of Dan River coal ash spill. Photo by Sara Ward, USFWS..
Sara Ward / USFWS

The CEO of Duke Energy sent a letter this week to Governor Pat McCrory and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) outlining the company's plans for coal ash clean-up in the state.

Duke says the letter is a big deal.

DENR described it as inadequate.

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. 

On February 2, between 50,000 and 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water waste were released at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station (pictured above) north of Eden, N.C.
Steven Alexander / USFWS

Internal emails released this week reveal that officials with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have been concerned about coal ash ponds at Duke Energy sites for years.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) obtained the documents as part of its effort to close coal ash ponds throughout the state. The roughly 400 pages of emails reveal employees at the state agency were concerned about storm water runoff at six sites owned by Duke Energy.

The cleanup for the 2008 Tennessee coal ash disaster. Image taken March 2012.
Appalachian Voices / via Creative Commons/Flickr

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.

Governor Pat McCrory
Hal Goodtree / Flickr Creative Commons

Governor Pat McCrory has sent a letter to Duke Energy’s CEO asking the company to remove coal ash from sites near waterways. In the letter McCrory says his administration has expressed its primary desire that coal ash ponds be moved away from waterways.

“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.”

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:

A federal investigation into Duke Energy’s coal ash spill expanded this week to include more employees of the state’s Department of Energy and Natural Resources. The agency’s head, Secretary John Skvarla, defended their work and their relationship with Duke Energy. Host Frank Stasio talks with WUNC reporter Jeff Tiberii about the legal case and on-going debate about the clean-up.