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Cleaning up and moving forward, five years after Dan River spill

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AP Coal Ash Spill North Carolina

Coal ash covers the hand of Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shortly after the spill on the Dan River in 2014.

Dan River station site map 2019

In the five years since a broken pipe flooded the Dan River with murky coal ash waste, Duke Energy and the community have worked to both clean up and move forward.

The Feb. 2, 2014, spill of about 39,000 tons of the waste led to a new law requiring the cleanup of all coal ash storage basins in the state.

Most of the 4.2 million tons of ash that had been stored at the utility's retired Dan River Steam Station near Eden has been hauled away to a Virginia landfill, sent to be recycled or moved to a lined landfill elsewhere on the site. 

The Charlotte-based utility expects to meet a state-mandated Aug. 1 deadline to complete work at its retired plants at Dan River and Riverbend in Mount Holly. The state approved a later deadline for work at the Asheville plant, and Duke Energy is seeking an extension until February 2020 for the Sutton plant near Wilmington after two hurricanes last year led to delays there.

At six sites identified as "low-risk," including the still functional coal-fired Belews Creek plant in Stokes County, Duke is finalizing closure plans with the state. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality held public meetings last month to discuss Duke's proposed plans for those sites.

For all six, Duke Energy is recommending to either fully or partially use a process called "cap in place," where the waste pile remains in the unlined basin and is covered by an impervious cap of thick plastic sheeting and layers of soil. The cover would keep the ash dry and prevent it from spreading pollution, say Duke Energy officials and consultants.

That solution doesn't sit well with some environmental advocates. 

Duke Energy coal-fired plants in North Carolina

"Hundreds of people turned out to those meetings and urged Duke Energy to excavate those sites" and move the ash to a lined landfill away from waterways, said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill. "It can be done on Duke's own property in lined landfills. It's entirely doable, the question is: Will Duke do it?"

Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the company looked at various options and research and considered factors such as cost and effect on the environment.

As part of a rate increase request last year, the state Utilities Commission ruled Duke Energy could include as part of its calculations what it spent to close coal ash basins. 

"One of the notions in all of this is managing coal ash, and closing these basins is all part of the life cycle of a power pant," Sheehan said. "Those costs have always been built into customer rates."

She said Duke Energy Progress is collecting $53.5 million annually for coal ash costs. And Duke Energy Carolinas, which includes the Triad and Rockingham County, where the Dan River plant is located, is collecting $122.3 million annually for coal ash costs.

Holleman argues Duke created the problem by choosing to water down the waste and store it in unlined basins prone to leak into groundwater or nearby waterways when it could have stored it in lined landfills away from the water.

He questioned the utility company's ability to remove coal ash that finds its way into a body of water. 

About 90 percent of the ash that spilled in 2014 was left in the Dan River with the OK of state and federal officials who warned that continuing removal efforts might do more harm than good by stirring up submerged pollution from other industries long ago.

Holleman said that "illustrates exactly why" Duke Energy should have to remove the coal ash from any of the riverfront basins.

"Duke Energy is incapable of cleaning up a spill once it happens," he said. "The only way to prevent the pollution is to stop it before it happens."

What is coal ash?
Coal ash make-up

About a year after the Dan River spill, Duke Energy pleaded guilty in U.S. District court to criminal charges related to the spill and its coal ash management practices at three other North Carolina sites. The company was fined $102 million and, as part of the plea, agreed to clean up the sites. The state also passed laws requiring all coal ash basins be closed. 

The next step in that cleanup process: Duke Energy must file with the state by August more detailed plans for its six "low-priority" sites. Public hearings will follow.

Duke has until 2029 to close all of its North Carolina coal ash basins.

In the meantime, customers of the utility can expect to see those closure costs added to future bills.

"As we incur more expenses, we’ll ask for cost recovery in future cases," Sheehan said in an email. "Very importantly, customers will never be asked to pay costs to clean up after the Dan River spill."

Reparations

The 2014 spill sent 39,000 tons of coal ash, along with millions of gallons of polluted wastewater, into the Dan River, which snakes back and forth across the state line with Virginia eight times.

The Dan, along with other rivers such as the Mayo and Smith, has helped bring people interested in kayaking, tubing, fishing, hiking and other recreation activities to Rockingham County.

At the time of the spill, the health of the river — and the tourism that relied on it — came into question.

Since then, Duke Energy has directed millions of dollars to communities affected by the Dan River spill, helping to boost their tourism industry.

The city of Eden has gotten more than $200,000, which went toward building the Matrimony Creek nature trail and adding or replacing river access points, said Michael Dougherty, Eden's economic development director.

More money from Duke funneled through the Rockingham Community Foundation helped Eden build trails at Grogan and Freedom parks and add bike racks on SCAT buses and in the community, he said.

"It's enabled us to establish an identity for the Dan River," Dougherty said.

Dougherty has been part of a committee of government and Duke officials that began meeting in September 2014 over the coal ash spill and its ramifications. They have since shifted the focus toward marketing their shared resource.

"The rivers have recovered," Dougherty said. "We see people on them all the time in the spring and summer."

Virginia officials said the environmental impact on the river, which has become an economic driver for communities on both sides of the state line, has been minimal in the years since the spill.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said studies from N.C. State, state agencies and Duke Energy "continue to demonstrate that the environment and ecosystem in and around the Dan River is thriving, and there is no known impact" from the 2014 Dan River spill.

North Carolina officials had annually tested for metals in fish since the spill and last year switched to biennial testing.

Testing in 2015 and 2016 found high levels of mercury and arsenic in two types of fish, prompting consumption warnings for those species. Of the 13 species tested, some striped and largemouth bass showed levels higher than acceptable limits, according to a 2017 report from the N.C. Division of Public Health.

The report said daily consumption of striped bass from the Milton site in the Dan River or largemouth bass from Kerr Reservoir could harm people’s health due to elevated levels of mercury in fish tissue.

The state plans to continue sampling fish and shellfish tissue from the Dan River for metals every other year to check for elevated metal concentrations, according to the 2017 report.

Whether for the health of the river or the tourism it brings, people seem to be much more thoughtful about the integrity of the river since the spill, Dougherty said.

"It reminds people you have to be very careful," he said, "because it really is a great asset for your community."

How big was the Dan River spill?

Future of energy production

Duke Energy still operates seven coal-fired plants in North Carolina, but plans to cut its reliance on coal in half by 2030.

Lynn Good, Duke's president, CEO and chairwoman, told Bloomberg Live in a December interview that the utility is continuing to expand its sources of energy production.

About a decade ago, coal and nuclear were the primary generators of Duke Energy's electricity, Good said.

Today, coal, nuclear and natural gas each account for about a third of the electricity produced, with a smaller percentage coming from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power, Good said.

Coal will be reduced again by half over the next decade, Good said.

"It’s a question of finding the balance, how are we going to achieve reliability, how are we going to achieve affordability and how are we going to achieve our aspirations around carbon reduction?" she said in the Bloomberg interview.

Good said she expects renewable energy sources, which now make up about 10 percent of the utility's portfolio, to increase to 20 percent by 2030.

The company is investing $500 million in batteries to complement renewable sources, such as solar, which is limited because of when it can be used to produce energy.

Holleman, the environmental lawyer, said the utility giant is not moving quickly enough on transitioning to alternate sources and questions replacing one fossil fuel with another. 

"Our view is, Duke should be moving more aggressively to relying on solar and wind- generated electricity and to implementing more aggressively energy efficiency measures," he said.

Good, in the Bloomberg interview, noted that natural gas has a lower carbon footprint than coal.

New sources of energy production make up just part of Duke's plans.

The future of the energy industry includes working to make the grid smarter, to harden it against physical and cyber attacks, and to expand its capacity to accommodate growing renewable energy sources, Good said.

She also said she sees more decentralized solutions, more decarbonization, and more use of digital (mobile) technology — "the ability to control what you're doing."

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Contact Jennifer Fernandez at 336-373-7064.​

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