BY JOHN R. CRANE firstname.lastname@example.org (434) 791-7987 | Posted: Sunday, February 9, 2014 12:00 am
The Tennessee Valley Authority’s customers are paying for part of the clean-up of the 2008 coal fly ash slurry spill at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant.
They are getting hit with 67 cents per month over a decade to pay for it, said Gabriel Wisniewski, energy campaign director for Greenpeace USA. More than $1 billion has been spent cleaning up the disaster, and some of it came out of the company’s bottom line.
Wisniewski said Danville residents should be wary of anything Duke Energy tells the public following Sunday’s coal ash spill in Eden, N.C., that dumped almost 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River.
“If I were a resident of Danville, I wouldn’t trust a word Duke was saying,” Wisniewski said during an interview Friday.
Duke has too much political influence over the same people tasked with regulating the company, he said, pointing to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s past 30-plus years working for the company as an example.
Meghan Musgrave, Duke spokeswoman, would not say whether the company’s ratepayers — including customers in Rockingham County, N.C. — would face higher monthly rates to help cover the costs of cleaning up the incident at Duke’s old Dan River Steam Station.
“At this point, we’re just focused on fixing the repair at the plant and doing the right thing,” Musgrave said Friday. “We’re not stopping until this work is done. We continue to focus on public safety and site safety.”
The Kingston spill
Around 1 a.m. on Dec. 22, 2008, the retention wall of a coal ash-holding pond failed at the TVA Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., according to a report from the Tennessee Department of Health.
More than 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash — mixed with 327 million gallons of water — spilled into a branch of the Emory River, two inlets, and the river’s main channel, according to the public health assessment released on Sept. 7, 2010.
The report said the release from the wall failure spread coal ash over about 300 acres outside the TVA’s dewatering and storage areas. It’s considered one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history, according to the health department’s prepared assessment.
“The massive coal slide disrupted power and ruptured a gas line, causing the evacuation of 22 residents,” the report stated.
The disaster left three homes condemned and the TVA provided those families compensation and other housing, according to the report. By August 2009, nearly a year after the incident, more than 100 property owners affected by the spill were compensated by the TVA, according to the report.
There were no deaths or injuries as a result of the ash slide, but there was environmental damage.
“The spill has dramatically affected the environment and disrupted citizens’ lives,” the report stated. “Water quality in the Emory River at the site of the ash spill was impaired and aquatic habitat was destroyed.”
The TVA was fined $11.5 million for the incident and the TVA bought a lot of the land impacted by the spill, Wisniewski said.
Following a lawsuit from environmental organizations, a federal judge ruled in 2012 that Kingston Fossil Plant — owned by the TVA — was responsible for damages from the spill, and had to pay for damage to hundreds of properties, said Scott Banbury, conservation program coordinator with the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The TVA was found negligent and did not properly engineer and maintain the coal-ash containment, Banbury said.
A Duke Energy official said on Friday that the magnitude of the Dan River Steam Station incident Feb. 2 was small compared to the Kingston disaster. Paul Newton, North Carolina state president for Duke Energy, said during a meeting with Danville city officials and the public that the Duke Energy spill was only 2 percent of the size of the one at the Kingston Fossil Plant.
For Wisniewski, the most relevant comparison is between Tennessee’s and North Carolina’s responses to their respective incidents.
State regulators in Tennessee, following the TVA incident, deployed staff immediately and began measuring the spill, wanting to know the extent of the damage, Wisniewski said.
What’s next for the Dan River and Duke customers?
It could easily take at least five years before the ash is cleaned up from the Dan River, Wisniewski said.
Cleaning up a coal ash spill takes a combination of dredges, vacuums, excavators and curtains spread across the river to prevent contaminants from flowing downstream, he said.
“It’s incredibly difficult work,” Wisniewski said.
He expressed fear that regulators in North Carolina “will not have the courage to stand up for the citizens in North Carolina” and hold Duke Energy accountable.
Could Duke customers end up footing the bill for the Dan River spill?
“I can certainly see a scenario where that would be the case,” Wisniewski said. “Ratepayers could pay for this.”
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have been pushing to have the TVA move from impounding the ash to storing it in appropriately lined and monitored landfills, Banbury said.