after Duke Energy dumped up to 82,000 tons of coal ash into it.
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.