Duke Energy lobbied to delay coal ash safety policies that could have prevented Dan River spill
On November 4, 2009, Duke Energy lobbyist Bill Tyndall walked into the White House and met with Obama Administration officials to discuss whether coal ash should be regulated in the wake of the TVA coal ash spill disaster that had happened 10 months previously. There’s no transcript of that meeting, but public statements and the documents that he and other lobbyists brought with them indicate that he probably said something like this:
“Coal ash is a non-hazardous, useful byproduct of burning coal. It poses no threat to human health and safety, and in fact can be used in all kinds of positive ways, like in agriculture and construction. Don’t do anything to regulate it – that would cost us money and hurt the economy.”
That’s nonsense, of course, the kind of thing that lobbyists say to protect their employers’ profit margins. Coal ash is highly toxic, containing chemicals like arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals that lead to cancer and other health problems.
But Duke Energy got its way. Despite strong public outrage after the TVA coal ash tragedy, EPA has essentially sat on its hands for the past four years, delaying the publication of a simple and common-sense rule that would label coal ash as hazardous waste and force utilities like Duke to clean up the mess they create when they burn coal.
Now Duke Energy is responsible for the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.
Its coal ash dump near Eden, NC has been leaking grey, toxic sludge into the Dan River since Sunday.
The utility still hasn’t been able to stop the leak, and doesn’t seem to know how.
Yesterday the company admitted that it hadn’t even known what the burst pipe responsible for the spill was made of. The nearest city is saying its drinking water is still okay, but it has been relying on Duke Energy to do the testing, which is troubling to say the least.
And regardless of the drinking water safety, there’s no telling what kind of damage will be caused to the Dan River’s ecosystem; the river’s ability to support fishing, recreation and aquatic life may be severely compromised.
The Dan River spill could have been prevented if EPA had acted back in 2009, heeding the voices of scientists and the public instead of calls for delay from Duke’s lobbyists.
If EPA had acted quickly and assertively, Duke would have been required to clean up unlined dumps like the one currently spilling into the Dan River. But Duke and other utilities’ hooks were into the Administration too deep. We learned a few months after Tyndall’s 2009 meeting that a front group for Duke Energy and other utilities, the American Coal Ash Association, had lobbied the EPA so effectively on this issue that they had ghostwritten every single EPA publication on the subject of coal ash.
Last Thursday, EPA finally announced that it would release its coal ash rule by the end of 2014, though it was far too late to protect the communities near the Dan River. Just 48 hours later, the pipe under Duke’s dump broke, sending up to 677 train cars worth of ash into the river.
For the people living on that river, Duke’s political dirt will be washing up on their shores for a long time to come.
INSTITUTE INDEX: Duke Energy coal ash spill latest in ongoing regulatory disaster
Date on which a break in a stormwater pipe beneath a coal ash disposal pit at a shuttered Duke Energy power plant near Eden, N.C. contaminated the Dan River with toxic coal ash: 2/2/2014
Estimated tons of coal ash -- which contains toxins including arsenic, lead, mercury, and radioactive elements -- that were released to the river: 50,000 to 82,000
Number of Olympic-size swimming pools that amount of coal ash would fill: 20 to 32
Estimated gallons of coal ash-contaminated water from the storage pit that also reached the river: 24 million to 27 million
Number of rail cars the toxic pollution could fill: 413 to 677
Rank of the spill among the largest coal ash spills in U.S. history: 3
Hours that Duke Energy waited from the time it discovered the spill to report it to the public: 26
Miles downstream of the spill site that Danville, Va. draws its drinking water: 6
Age in years of Duke Energy's Dan River ash pits: 53
Year in which Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspections found problems with leakage at the plant's coal ash dam as well as dilapidated and poorly maintained stormwater pipes: 2009
Number of coal-fired power plants that Duke Energy owns across North Carolina: 14
Percent of those plants where there have been unpermitted discharges of coal ash to the environment: 100
Amount that is being spent to run a municipal water line to the North Carolina community of Flemington because a leaky Duke Energy coal ash pit contaminated the local groundwater supply: $2.25 million
Amount of that total cost being borne by the local community: $472,000
Number of times more likely someone living near a coal ash pit is to develop cancer than someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day: 9
Year in which the EPA administrator pledged to enact the first-ever federal regulations of coal ash disposal: 2009
Year in which public health and environmental advocacy groups sued the EPA over its failure to enact the promised regulations amid pressure from Duke Energy and other coal-burning power companies: 2012
Amount Duke Energy spent on federal lobbying last year alone, including on efforts to block strict coal ash regulations: $5.99 million
Date on which the Department of Justice lodged a consent decree requiring EPA to release a final coal ash rule: 1/29/2014
Date by which the EPA must publish the final rule on coal ash disposal: 12/19/2014
Duke Energy coal ash poisoning NC lake, study finds
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That's the finding of a new study by Wake Forest University biologist Dr. Dennis Lemly. He looked at the effects of selenium pollution on fish in Lake Sutton, created in 1972 when Catfish Creek, a tributary of the Cape Fear River, was dammed to provide cooling water for the L.V. Sutton power plant near Wilmington, N.C. A component of coal ash that builds up in the food chain, selenium is an essential trace mineral but in high doses can cause developmental abnormalities and reproductive failure in fish and other wildlife as well as neurological damage and other health problems in humans.
An expert on selenium pollution of fisheries, Lemly examined more than 1,400 fish collected from Lake Sutton between May and September of this year and found that 28 percent of them were deformed. He also found that the population of catchable bass in the lake has plummeted by 50 percent since 2008. Lemly figures that the replacement value of the lost fish is over $4.5 million per year -- an estimate that he calls "highly conservative."
"Selenium pollution from Duke's coal ash takes food off the table of North Carolinians who count on Sutton Lake to feed their families, and fish off fishermen's lines," said attorney Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which commissioned the study as part of its ongoing efforts to force the company to clean up its coal ash pollution. Coal ash pollution has been documented at all 14 of Duke's North Carolina coal-fired power plants.
A spokesperson for Duke Energy told The Star-News of Wilmington that the company has been testing fish in Lake Sutton for decades and did not find the kind of problems documented in Lemly's report, which it said it finds "highly suspect."
Watchdog slams Duke Energy's 'sweetheart deal' for NC coal ash contamination
On Monday, the N.C. Division of Water Quality (DWQ) released a proposed consent order with Duke over discharges of coal ash-contaminated wastewater from its Asheville plant in Buncombe County and its Riverbend plant near Charlotte. Groundwater monitoring near the plants showed levels of health-damaging contaminants including boron, manganese and thallium that exceeded regulatory limits. The Asheville plant discharges wastewater to the French Broad River, Lake Julian, and a tributary of Powell Creek, while Riverbend discharges to Mountain Island Lake, a drinking water source for 750,000 people in the Charlotte area.
The proposed consent order requires Duke Energy to take steps to determine the cause and extent of the problem and address unpermitted seeps from its ash ponds. It also imposes an initial fine of $99,111.72, with additional penalties in case of failure to comply with the order. The public has 30 days to comment on the order before it becomes final.
Democracy North Carolina blasted the fine as "piddling" and raised concerns about Gov. Pat McCrory's (R) ties to the utility:
Given Duke's $19.6 billion in 2012 operating revenues, that's the equivalent of fining a person with a $60,000 salary a total of 30 cents.McCrory worked for Duke Energy for nearly 30 years and still holds a significant amount of stock in the Charlotte-based company, the nation's largest electric utility since its recent merger with Progress Energy.
Under the agreement, Duke receives amnesty for its previous pollution, can continue leaching contaminants into the water, and gets to decide when its research shows that the contamination is significant enough to address. Gov. McCrory is largely turning over his responsibility to protect the public's health to his former employer.