Coal ash photo by Brian Stansberry
A retired Duke Energy coal plant in Eden, North Carolina recently leaked 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the nearby Dan River. The contaminated fluid traveled through a broken pipe underneath an unlined storage pit, sending 27 million gallons of water from a 27-acre storage pond into the river. Environmental groups and Duke Energy are in disagreement as to the level of arsenic in the waterway, but some independent assessments have measured concentrations 35 times higher than limits set by the EPA.
Not only do coal-fire power plants spew greenhouse gasses and particulate matter into the air, but they also produce extraordinarily harmful byproducts that need to be stored on land. Coal ash contains a number of highly toxic chemicals including lead, mercury, arsenic, selenium, and chromium. Most of the material is stored in aging ponds that are largely unregulated by the government.
The southeastern United States possess 40 percent of the nation’s coal ash containment centers and 21 dams that are considered to be “high-hazard”. Duke Energy, the country’s largest electricity provider, owns 14 plants in North Carolina alone, with 7 of them currently retired. The EPA has plans to finalize federal regulations for coal ash for the first time in history by December of this year. Until then, it is up to local governments and activist groups to put pressure on the energy industry to move coal ash from aging pits to more secure containers.
The state of North Carolina and several environmental groups are suing Duke Energy, and officials are still in the process of determining how much ash has settled into the river. The spill shows that even as the country progresses towards cleaner sources of electricity, communities will still have to deal with the legacy of the harmful, dirty technologies of the past.