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Dan River coal ash spill
This is what you can still find in parts of the Dan River
after Duke Energy dumped up to 82,000 tons of coal ash into it.
As these things usually go, the "deal" the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made with Duke Energy to clean up its totally predictable Feb. 2 spill of coal ash is better than might have been expected:
EPA will oversee the cleanup in consultation with federal wildlife officials under provisions in the Superfund law. Duke will reimburse the federal government for its oversight costs, including those incurred in the emergency response to the spill.

"EPA will work with Duke Energy to ensure that cleanup at the site, and affected areas, is comprehensive based on sound scientific and ecological principles, complies with all Federal and State environmental standards, and moves as quickly as possible," said Heather McTeer Toney, the EPA's regional administrator based in Atlanta. "Protection of public health and safety remains a primary concern, along with the long-term ecological health of the Dan River."

But there was no mention from the EPA of possible fines against Duke. The spill of 27 million gallons of water contaminated with 82,000 tons of toxins-saturated coal ash, which is produced when coal is burned to generate electricity, raised a ruckus in North Carolina over the cozy relationship between state regulators and Duke, the nation's largest single generator of electricity. About 40 percent of U.S. electricity is generated with coal. Among the poisons in coal ash are arsenic, lead, selenium, chromium and mercury.

The spill into the Dan did not create a problem for drinking water supplies, but it did kill wildlife along the river. Environmental advocates used it to put the spotlight on the overall problem of coal ash dumps scattered around the state, unchecked by anything any fair observer could call adequate preventive measures. Previous spills in North Carolina and elsewhere have poisoned water and land and killed scores of people. And yet no federal coal ash standard has been established.

In the wake of the February spill, critics pointed to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources as one culprit in the affair for its unwillingness to do anything that might irk Duke. Not even wrist slaps. Only after significant publicity and threats of outside lawsuits focused on the fact that the DENR had not gone after the company for two major violations of environmental regulations did the department take action. And that was to fine Duke a mere $99,111, the kind of money the $50 billion company spends on hor d'oeuvres at executive seminars. Critics also noted that Republican Gov. Pat McCrory had been a Duke employee for 28 years and might tend to soft-pedal any screw-ups his former bosses encountered.

For decades before the Dan River spill, coal ash has been routinely dumped in wetlands, creeks and empty private lots throughout the North Carolina, Kentucky and other states. Currently there are 70 ash pits in North Carolina containing 11 million cubic yards of ash. A fourth of it, 2.6 million cubic yards, rests in unlined and unmonitored sites, a hazard to water sources. Another 33 ash pits and ash ponds can be found at power plants owned by Duke Energy and Duke Energy Progress, leaking into the groundwater.

So EPA is making Duke clean up one poisonous mess and mandating the company to pay for it and for EPA's oversight of the effort. But until a federal coal-ash standard is established, and serious enforcement funded, this kind of potentially lethal event will continue to happen. When neither the generators of the ash and the regulators of the generators behave the way they do, you can hardly characterize these events as accidents.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Fri May 23, 2014 at 02:34 PM PDT.

Also republished by Gulf Watchers Group and Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  hor d'oeuvres at executive seminars (8+ / 0-)

    What a great phrase to capture the $ imbalance between what moves the needle at companies like Duke vs what the rest of us consider real money.

    It's really acute in the area of company public relations budgets vs citizens putting out the facts. In the PNW it's pretty routine to see a few people with no budget going up against multi-million dollar PR budgets.

  •  shouldn't the 1 pct eat 1 pct of (7+ / 0-)

    their spilt poison so we can all be sure it's safe to allow passage thru our neighborhoods/even be unearthed at all?
    I ash you sincerely..

    decent wages don't eliminate jobs. Republicans eliminate jobs; and workers, and prospects, and then excuse it all and call for more austerity. there is no end to their ignorant, arrogant avarice. only political dinosaurs support their treachery.

    by renzo capetti on Fri May 23, 2014 at 02:51:40 PM PDT

  •  I was encouraged that you said the spill would (5+ / 0-)

    have to be cleaned up to meet state and FEDERAL standards.  I figured the state standards were whatever Duke said was cleaned up, but I figured the federal standards would mean business.  Then I read in your final paragraph that there is no federal coal-ash standard.  So while there may be standards for clean water, I am skeptical of this being that great.  Grrr...  

    I used to really like North Carolina - having enjoyed the beaches, the outer banks and some of the mountain areas, but now I'm a little concerned for what I might see if we went back what is now 40 years later.

    •  For this case, that's not that important (6+ / 0-)
      I figured the state standards were whatever Duke said was cleaned up, but I figured the federal standards would mean business.  Then I read in your final paragraph that there is no federal coal-ash standard.  
      Cleanup standards generally aren't set for classes of material (such as coal ash, or, as EPA might call it, coal combustion residue, or CCR). Rather, standards are set based on the human and/or ecological risk posed by a material, and that depends not on the quantity of material but the concentration of hazardous substances within the material.

      CCR is known to have a range of hydrocarbons (including carcinogenic polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons) and various metals and nonmetals. Cleanups completed under the law cited in the settlement (Superfund, or as it is more specifically known, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act [aka CERCLA]) will include standards for the major hazardous constituents contained in CCR.

      CERCLA is far from a perfect law, but it is well-suited to guide this cleanup.  The reference to a lack of a "coal-ash standard" likely refers to pending rulemaking under another environmental law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which would govern both how CCR is managed as well as how it would be cleaned up if released to the environment.

  •  The EPA has to get the coal ash standard done. (4+ / 0-)

    That's probably the number 1 item left on the to-do list.

    I wonder if it's lagging because it isn't the air group? The Clean Air division has been doing most of the heaving lifting on coal.

    Art is the handmaid of human good.

    by joe from Lowell on Fri May 23, 2014 at 03:10:31 PM PDT

  •  Crossed the Dan River two weeks ago (3+ / 0-)

    passing thru Danville on the way to Charlottesville and back.

    Rivers can be deceptive in appearance as to their health. I've never really been a fan of Duke Energy. I grew up with them. 'Course back then they were simply Duke Power. They were still one of the largest coal companies.

    F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Fight for you. Respect you. Include you. Encourage you. Need you. Deserve you. Stand by you.

    by TexDem on Fri May 23, 2014 at 03:18:17 PM PDT

  •  Anyone going to jail? (4+ / 0-)

    People go to jail in this country for smoking a plant, but not for destroying the environment. This is an untenable situation, at some point soon enough people will recognize the inherent insanity of this and things will have to change.

    "Political ends as sad remains will die." - YES 'And You and I' ; -8.88, -9.54

    by US Blues on Fri May 23, 2014 at 04:13:05 PM PDT

  •  It's a wonder we have any shorebirds (2+ / 0-)

    that depend on the wetlands.  

    Silent spring is almost here, are you ready for a sterile world, no bees, no birds, no fish?  

    But, we can drive to the mall.  Wait!  The mall is bankrupt.  No one to spend money there, we're all at PayDay loan, lining up for grocery money at 52% interest (compounded daily).    

    the dog you have, is the dog you need. - Cesar Millan

    by OregonWetDog on Fri May 23, 2014 at 04:24:21 PM PDT

  •  Ha! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Wells

    Duke will never pay for their mess. NC is bought and paid for by Duke and we in NC can bet that they will be the ones to cover the costs. Shareholders might even get a tax break.
    We are fukd.

  •  Tweak to NC law protected Duke's coal ash pits (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Patango, Meteor Blades

    By MITCH WEISS and MICHAEL BIESECKER— Mar. 17, 2014 2:46 PM EDT

    North Carolina regulators had for years allowed the nation's largest power company to pollute the ground near its plants without penalty. But in early 2013, a coalition of environmental groups sued to force Duke to clean up nearly three dozen leaky coal ash dumps spread across the state.

    So last summer, Duke Energy turned to North Carolina lawmakers for help.

    Documents and interviews collected by The Associated Press show how Duke's lobbyists prodded Republican legislators to tuck a 330-word provision in a regulatory reform bill running nearly 60 single-spaced pages. Though the bill never once mentions coal ash, the change allowed Duke to avoid any costly cleanup of contaminated groundwater leaching from its unlined dumps toward rivers, lakes and the drinking wells of nearby homeowners.

    Passed overwhelmingly by the GOP-controlled legislature, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, a pro-business Republican who worked at Duke for 28 years.

    This is the provision that the republicans slipped into the Bill
    Their vehicle was the Regulatory Reform Act. And they took aim at a provision that had been on the books for decades, requiring Duke to halt the source of contamination if its subterranean plumes of pollution crept more than 500 feet from its ash dumps.
    Around each waste pit is a  "compliance boundary," a sort of warning system monitoring wells tracking the spread of underground pollution.

    Republicans allowed the polluters to redraw the boundry lines:

    ..regulators even let Duke redraw its compliance boundaries when it looked like contamination might cross the line — a stalling tactic to avoid the cost of cleanup.
    This is not as current as the linked article but it tells the story of Duke energy, and the republican shills flouting the laws or changing the boundary lines to whatever they want.

    So it's good to see that what seemed like was a major public outcry and environmentalists fighting back that forced Duke/republicans to clean up their pollution.
    Too bad they aren't held liable for the true cost of their greed

    Thx MB

    So the fight continues

  •  Oh, no problem! (0+ / 0-)

    The state legislature will merely pass a law prohibiting the state Department of Environmental Conservation from finding anything more than normal levels of impurities in the water when they do their testing.

    Problem solved!

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