What does coal ash in North Carolina’s water supply look like today, and in the future?

A map of coal ash disposal sites in North Carolina compiled by the Southern Environmental Law Center. Red dots signify drinking water contamination near the site.

In March of 2015, Duke Energy blasted the government of North Carolina for what it criticized as “regulatory overreach” when the state levied a record 25 million dollar fine on the corporation for environmental damage to North Carolina’s water supply. This fine is exclusively pertaining to Duke Energy’s Sutton facility near Wilmington, which isn’t the only pollution in North Carolina that can be traced to Duke Energy’s facilities.

On February 2nd, 2014 an aging pipe near a closed coal plant burst open, spilling 39 tons of ash into the river, which lines the bottom of the river for 77 miles beyond the busted pipe. It was the 2nd largest coal ash spill in US history. The DHHS immediately recommended staying away from contaminated water, and not eating fish from the river, on the grounds that both could be contaminated. In May of 2015, Duke Energy was fined a whopping 102 Million Dollars after guilty pleas to 9 violations of the Federal Clean Water Act concerning the Dan River, as well as in other coal-ash facilities in North Carolina.

Despite the massive amounts of money, politics, and concern for public safety, not much about the activities of Duke Energy or the status of North Carolina’s waterways has been written since mid-2015. What can be pieced together about the future of North Carolina’s rivers from what little coverage there is of the situation today? Are the fines imposed by the state and federal government an acceptable reparation for the damage done to the state’s ecology?

Many ecologists believe that the total cost of a complete cleanup of Dan River could cost $300 million dollars. Compare that to the nearly 1.9 billion in profits Duke Energy collected in 2014. And that 25 million dollar fine the state intended to levy mentioned at the beginning? The fine isn’t being paid in full.

Duke Energy avoided a trial by settling for a mere $7 million dollars. After all, Duke claims that the state couldn’t expect a fine of over the original $24,700 mark to be enforceable in court. So why did Duke embattle the state to avoid large fines, but plead guilty to the federal government for a much larger charge? The sad answer is that Duke Energy stood a fair chance of beating the state of North Carolina in court, and that $7 million was a victory for the state.

In a case of undoubtably shady politics, current governor Pat McCrory worked for Duke Energy, the largest electric power company in the United States, for 30 years. Duke Energy, in 2012,with Progress Energy, the former energy provider for much of North Carolina.. In late 2014, Duke Energy donated $3,050,000 to the Republican Governor’s Association Super-Pac, an organization that supports McCrory, who is running for re-election during the November elections of 2016.

According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, there are 20 billion pounds of coal ash concentrated in 64 impoundments originating from 14 coal plants within North Carolina spanning 2000 acres. In April of 2015, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, many families living near these facilities began receiving notice from the state that their well water was no longer safe to drink. Many of these facilities are unlined, which is to say that the coal ash is not contained within the impoundment in any sufficient way. There are a few ways of securing these impoundments, such as covering it up with cement or cleaning up the coal ash for more permanent storage. According to WUNC on January 6, 2016, The Department of Environmental Quality released a report stating that it believes that 20 of the coal ash pits must be totally excavated to neutralize any harm to the surrounding water. although environmental groups contend at least 27 coal ash pits will require complete excavation.

Although mainstream media hype concerning coal ash pollution in North Carolina has quieted to some extent, the threat of coal ash contamination to our water supplies and wildlife are still frighteningly real and many people throughout North Carolina see it as a daily presence rather than a sad news piece. Sadly, it doesn’t seem as though environmental peace is coming to North Carolina anytime soon.

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