Sometimes when a disaster occurs there is a silver lining.

A series of beneficial projects have culminated after the February 2014 Eden Duke Energy coal ash spill. Some of these projects were willingly funded by Duke Energy in an effort to make amends for the spill. In other cases, Duke Energy was compelled through court rulings and governmental policies of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR), a program to restore natural resources damaged by oil or hazardous substances released into the environment. Whether the company’s hand was forced or it volunteered funding, in all cases these projects are having a significant positive impact on numerous rivers and communities mostly in the Dan River Basin in North Carolina and Virginia.

In his recent article “Dan River ‘restoration’ enters final phase,” BH Media’s Taft Wireback discussed several such projects, including the 64 acres of the Mayo River (Upper Trust) that was negotiated by the Piedmont Land Conservancy with the owners and then purchased with Duke Energy funds through the NRDAR process. This 1 ½ mile river section is a very high-value recreation area and will make the Mayo River State Park a destination area.

Here are other projects that Duke Energy, along with PLC and the Dan River Basin Association, has accomplished in recent years:

  • Bought 320 acres of land stretching about 5 miles along the Mayo River known as the Lower Trust that is now part of the Mayo River State Park.
  • Bought 3.4 acres on Planters Road for a Dan River boating access and park and is now owned by Rockingham County.
  • Bought 218 acres along the north fork of the Mayo River that adds significantly to the VA Mayo River State Park.
  • Funded an initiative called ST8, which is a committee dedicated to helping develop a regional identity for the Dan River Basin.
  • Funded a Rockingham Community College trails building program that is slated to become accredited in three years.
  • Gave a $500,000 grant to the RCC Foundation, resulting in 28 environmentally focused projects in Rockingham County.
  • Gave Rockingham County 102 acres near Belews Lake to develop a hiking and multi-recreation park.
  • Funded development of hiking trails and river access at High Rock Bridge along the Haw River on land owned by the Rockingham County Historical Museum.
  • Funded kiosks for all of the Dan River boating access points.

Duke Energy has done a great deal of good with these projects. Yet, there is still more to be accomplished after the Dan River coal ash spill, and that is having Duke Energy complete the removal of all coal ash pits across North Carolina to lined and capped pits.

According to Frank Holleman of the Southern Environment Law Center, Duke Energy is attempting to leave six sites in unlined pits. This includes the pit at the Belews Creek power plant. If these pits are left unlined but capped, then there will remain a significant stigma that they are continuing to pollute the surrounding area drinking wells, right or wrong.

Duke Energy: Clean up these coal ash pits using the best scientific methods and cross the finish line of making amends for the 2014 coal ash spill. It is expensive, but the public wants it to happen. Your reputation will be better restored by using “high and dry” methods, and environmental groups will applaud you for seeing the job through.

Who pays? Duke pays 100% for the Eden Dan River spill. However, we all have responsibility for helping accumulate coal ash when we use electricity. After the Kingston, Tenn., disaster, customers helped pay for the clean-up at about $8/year (68 cents/month) for 10 years. Admittedly, this is more of a burden for some, but for the majority, it is a nominal amount to pay to safely move toxic coal ash from our drinking water supplies.

After all is said and litigated, the true silver lining to the Dan River coal ash spill could be that all coal ash is moved to lined and capped pits. This is best for our drinking water, for Duke Energy to regain our confidence and its reputation, and for our environmental future.

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Will Truslow is a board member of the Dan River Basin Association and the Piedmont Land Conservancy. He lives in Greensboro. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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