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There's a frightening story on the front page of today's Charlotte Observer.  The water supply for the nation's 17th-largest city is only three miles downstream from a massive stockpile of coal ash at a recently-closed power plant.  And yet, it's been hard to get information about how safe these ash ponds are--even though that plant is operated by the same company responsible for the Dan River ash spill.

A pair of 80-foot-high earthen dams, one of them built in the Eisenhower era, stand between Charlotte’s water supply and more than 5 billion pounds of coal ash.

Duke Energy promises the dikes at its retired Riverbend power plant on Mountain Island Lake are safe. The latest detailed inspection, ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency after a huge ash spill in Tennessee in 2008, deems them “satisfactory.”

But it’s hard for the public, or even state inspectors, to learn much beyond that. Clouded by protective legislation, company secrecy and security concerns, the paper trail about Duke’s ash ponds is a foggy path.

As bad as the Dan River spill was, it could have been much worse.  Danville, Virginia is the nearest drinking-water user to the Dan River, but Danville is 25 miles from the spill site--far enough away that the city was able to filter out any ash that made it that far downstream.  However, the intake for Charlotte's water supply is so close to the Riverbend plant that, in a major understatement, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities director Barry Gullet says any coal-ash spill into Mountain Island Lake would be "catastrophic."

Despite this and fallout from the Dan River spill, Duke Energy refuses to release its internal assessments of the dikes.  It refuses to comment beyond the last state inspection of the ponds at Riverbend, which operated from 1929 until last April.  That inspection, in 2012, deemed the ponds "satisfactory."  Additionally, when the state made the dam-safety office responsible for ash pond inspections, it didn't require utilities to provide backup documents such as construction drawings and emergency action plans in order to continue operating them.  That really came into sharp focus after the Dan River spill, which was apparently triggered by a failure in a stormwater pipe that state officials didn't know was under the ponds.

Charlotte officials recently asked Duke for more information about the ash ponds.  Officials from Gastonia, a Charlotte suburb, also want answers; Gastonia also uses Mountain Island Lake for its water supply.  Additionally, the Southern Environmental Law Center is suing to force Duke Energy to remove the ash from Riverbend and another plant.  Incredibly, it was the SELC's threat to sue that prompted the state to take over the suit and propose a settlement that would have called for a $99,000 fine and continued inspections--but no requirement to remove the ash.  That settlement was taken off the table after Dan River, prompting the SELC to press for internal documents about Riverbend.  Either way, hopefully some answers will come soon.

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