Posts Tagged ‘Coal Ash’

NCDENR Defends NCDENR, Not the Environment

Monday, February 24th, 2014 - posted by Kimber
In a press briefing to address the Dan River coal ash spill, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla revealed that he’s still not convinced that the agency should require the cleanup of coal ash ponds.

In a press briefing to address the Dan River coal ash spill, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla revealed that he’s still not convinced the agency should require the cleanup of coal ash ponds.

With the finesse of a bulldozer, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla plowed through a Feb. 19 press briefing on coal ash and the Dan River coal ash spill, hurrying from the room after less than an hour with the protests of reporters and their unanswered questions echoing behind him.

While the public has been eager for DENR to discuss their plans to prevent future coal ash disasters, Skvarla instead spent the majority of his time striking back at allegations that his agency has not done enough to prevent such disasters from occurring.

Since the Feb. 2 collapse of a stormwater pipe at Duke Energy’s retired coal plant in Eden, N.C., DENR has been making national headlines. The 39,000 tons of toxic ash that have coated more than 70 miles of the Dan River mark the spill as the third largest incident in U.S. history. Now, the media spotlight has brightened as both Duke Energy and NCDENR have been called to testify before a federal grand jury in March.

Coal ash, the byproduct of coal burned to produce electricity, contains an ugly lineup of contaminants that include arsenic, selenium, mercury and lead. Often stored in unlined pits, the potential for coal ash to mingle with ground and surface water is not just speculation — it’s a time-tested reality.

Yet according to Skvarla, the wisdom of cleaning up leaking coal ash ponds is a matter of debate. Lamenting that environmentalists keep pushing a “one-size-fits-all” option of digging up the leaking coal ash ponds and moving the waste to lined and covered landfills, Skvarla went on to insist that, “There are environmental scientists who say that’s the worst thing that can happen to the environment. The answer is, nobody knows at this point.”

It was six days before Duke Energy successfully plugged the leaking pipe that has contaminated more than 70 miles of the Dan River with coal ash.

It was six days before Duke Energy successfully plugged the leaking pipe that has contaminated more than 70 miles of the Dan River with coal ash.

In truth, nobody knows what uncertainty Skvarla was talking about. NCDENR has been unable to provide any scientific evidence backing up Skvarla’s claim that moving coal ash to lined landfills would damage the environment. When asked if such studies exist during an interview with WRAL reporters, Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University, was dumbfounded.

“Of course not,” he said. “If there is evidence of groundwater contamination and surface water contamination at the coal ash pond, then leaving it as-is obviously isn’t an option if the environment is something you care about. You don’t need to be Joe Chemist to figure that out.”

Skvarla is no stranger to making claims that are downright bizarre. In a statement that seemed to border on delusional, Skvarla aligned himself with the very same groups he had previously accused of inventing environmental problems in order to initiate lawsuits and pad their coffers.

“Somehow or another this perception has been created that we are adversaries to the citizens groups when in fact we are all on the same side of the table,” Skvarla claimed at the press conference. “We are partners. We all have the same outcome in mind.”

Despite being “partners,” no members of the citizens groups have been invited to join discussions with NCDENR. In fact, in a statement to Indy Week’s news blog, a spokesperson from the Southern Environmental Law Center — which represents the various citizen and environmental groups in their suit against Duke Energy — confirmed that the agency has tried to block their participation every step of the way.

Even with the pressure mounting on NCDENR to address the continued threat of haphazardly stored coal ash, the agency is insisting that they need more time to review just how dangerous the situation really is. Responding to allegations that Duke and NCDENR have known for years about the extent and hazard of coal ash contamination, Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources, assured the press that while this is true, Duke has not received any special treatment.

Sidestepping the point about health concerns entirely, Reeder stated that “Duke is not the only permittee in North Carolina that has contaminated groundwater. We have these sites all throughout the state.” It’s not clear whether Reeder expected the public to be relieved upon hearing that NCDENR has been just as lax with every company polluting groundwater in North Carolina. What is clear is that the time for debating the safety of coal ash is long over — when it comes to clean water and a safe environment, NCDENR needs to realize that “one-size-fits-all” is the right fit for everyone.

Preventable Spills Yield Predictable Apologies

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014 - posted by brian
Freedom Industries President Gary Southern faces reporters and the public for the first time after the Jan. 9 chemical spill on the Elk River.

Freedom Industries President Gary Southern faces reporters and the public for the first time after the Jan. 9 chemical spill on the Elk River.

At the gates of Freedom Industries, just a few hundred feet from the shoddy chemical storage tank on the banks of the Elk River that started it all, Gary Southern approached a cluster of microphones. As Freedom Industries’ president, he was about to become the face of a catastrophic chemical spill that threatened the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands West Virginians.

“This incident is extremely unfortunate and unanticipated,” Southern said. “We are very sorry for the disruption.”

But it was too late. For what could be weeks or longer — it was anyone’s guess — 300,000 people would be without safe tap water. Businesses and schools closed. Families waited for reassuring news, but practically every piece of expert advice came with a disclaimer and was of little consolation.

Less than a month later, on Feb. 2, a corroded storm water pipe running under a coal ash pond near Eden, N.C., gave way, spilling an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River. Inspectors from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources were sent to the investigate the spill, and Paul Newton, president of Duke Energy’s North Carolina operations, was dispatched to downstream communities with his hat in hand.

“We apologize and will use all available resources to take care of the river,” Newton told impacted residents. “We are accountable.”

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good called the mayor of Danville, Va., just downstream from the site of the spill, to apologize. And the Associated Press signified how trivial it all can seem with the headline “Polluting N.C. utility says it’s sorry.”

As the cornerstone of crisis P.R., the short-order apology is to be expected. But without action, apologies aren’t meaningful. They aren’t effective cover-ups or remedies, they’re a reflex, a stalling tactic, and a reminder of past offenses.

Before the Dan River spill, for example, Duke Energy had for years accused environmental groups and citizens of crying wolf on the problem of coal ash pollution. So when the Charlotte Business Journal asked readers what grade Duke Energy deserves for its handling of the Dan River coal ash spill, it’s not surprising that 60 percent thought an “F” only fair.

“Apologies can and should be hugely important actions and mechanisms, blessed with enormous power and lasting impact,” Dov Seidman, a consultant focused on corporate values and culture, recently wrote. “But they must be two-way exchanges of trust and healing that are open and transparent.”

According to Seidman, no matter the scale or situation, a few essential criteria must be met for an apology to be authentic: It must be painful. It cannot serve as an excuse or a means to an end. It must force offenders to conduct a “moral audit” of personal and organizational values. And it must embrace ideas as to how to improve.

But perhaps most importantly, to achieve positive change in the wake of environmental disasters that cannot be reversed, an authentic apology must turn true regret into a behavioral shift followed by a continuous investment to avoid repeating past mistakes.

“Bad apologies drive out good,” claims Seidman, “so that those who take their apologies seriously, and work tirelessly to live up to them, are dismissed along with the drivel.”

Not only had Freedom Industries failed to report the spill when it was discovered, it was later revealed the company kept its knowledge of a second chemical a secret. More recently, the disgraced company’s bankruptcy has given new meaning to “conflict of interest,” and Gary Southern stood up the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, which invited him to testify on the spill.

So, at least thus far, every indication is that Southern’s apology was one of the bad ones. But it should also be noted that Freedom Industries’ ability to deal with crises was dwarfed by the crisis it created — the company had no emergency response plan, and its initial effort to stop the leak consisted of a cinder block and a 50-pound bag of safety absorbent powder. Now facing dozens of lawsuits, Freedom Industries is momentarily shielded as it goes through bankruptcy.

In North Carolina, Duke Energy has to own up to the reality that it has deserved an “F” on its coal ash report card all along — despite former CEO Jim Rogers’ statement that his company would “ultimately end up cleaning up all that.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office has opened a federal criminal investigation into Duke Energy and officials in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, Duke has begun dredging the Dan River. Some residents that live around Charleston have returned to using their water — others may never trust it. But in the weeks and months ahead, as these spills begin to fade from the media and from the daily conversations in communities surrounding the spills, we should remember all the acceptances of accountability, the promises to do better.

Will the coal industry and companies like Freedom Industries that support it stop pushing for reduced oversight? Will Duke Energy take the necessary steps to protect human and environmental health by moving its coal ash away from North Carolina’s waterways? Only then should we decide whether their apologies are authentic or worth accepting.

Second Ruptured Pipe Spills Arsenic into Dan River

Friday, February 21st, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Weeks after the original spill, Duke Energy struggled to stop arsenic-laden water from leaking into the Dan River this week.

Weeks after the original spill, Duke Energy struggled to stop arsenic-laden water from leaking into the Dan River this week.

Contaminated water continued to flow into the Dan River from Duke Energy’s coal ash pond in Eden, N.C., this week. On Tuesday, state officials reported that a second pipe running beneath the coal ash pond is leaking water containing arsenic at levels 14 times higher than human health standards.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has ordered Duke to stop the flow of arsenic-laden water into the Dan River. On Wednesday, Duke Energy was using pumps and tanker trucks to capture the water coming from the second pipe. To completely stop the leak, the company says it will follow the same plan it used for the first pipe: capping it with a concrete and grout mixture.

Officials do not know how long the pipe has been leaking, but video footage from inside the pipe shows stains around the leaky seams, indicating that the leak is not new.

The extent of damage that Duke Energy’s coal ash pond has had on aquatic life in the Dan River is still unknown, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned that the spills in Eden will have long-term impacts on the mollusks, fish, and other aquatic life in the river. The river is home to two endangered species, the Roanoke logperch fish and the James spinymussel. It is also used by residents for fishing and recreation. But since the spill they have been advised to not eat fish or mussels from the river or touch the water.

Duke Energy’s outdated and dangerous infrastructure has cost North Carolinians, and now, Virginians, the recreational benefits of a precious water resource. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported on Tuesday that a massive pile of coal ash, about 75-feet long and as much as 5-feet deep, coats the bottom of the Dan River. Coal ash from the spill has been found as far as Kerr Lake, which is also a popular fishing and recreation destination.

Despite the damage that Duke’s operational mismanagement has brought to these public waterways, the company expects that ratepayers will ultimately have to pay for the spill clean up. Duke’s director of environmental and legislative affairs, George Everett, told legislators that, “We’re focused on stopping the discharge and initiating the remediation of the river. But when costs do come into play, when we’ve had a chance to determine what those costs are, it’s usually our customers who pay our costs of operation.”

Duke’s fourth-quarter profits showed a 58 percent increase and in 2013 the company grossed an incredible $24.6 billion in revenue. It is unacceptable that Duke Energy would place the financial burden of their gross operational oversight onto their customers, especially in light of the fact that the spills on the Dan River have damaged the economic uses of multiple waterways.

Take action now to tell Duke Energy to clean up its toxic coal ash. And join Appalachian Voices and other concerned citizens, environmental and social justice groups to deliver a petition opposing coal ash pollution to Duke Energy’s headquarters on March 25.

Coal-related Spills Connect Us All

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 - posted by tom
We all have rivers we love, such as the Moormans in Virginia, my favorite place for a swim. Unfortunately, many of these places are under threat of pollution, including Fields Creek, the Kanawha River and Dan River, the three waterways polluted by the past month's coal-related spills.

We all have rivers we love, such as the Moormans in Virginia, my favorite place for a swim. Unfortunately, many of these places are under threat of pollution, including Fields Creek, the Kanawha River and Dan River, the three waterways polluted by the past month’s coal-related spills.

You probably have a favorite waterway near your home where you like to cast a fishing line, paddle with friends, or swim with your children. For me, it’s the North Fork of the Moormans River, a lively mountain creek running off the Blue Ridge.

Over the last several weeks, with each report from our staff on the coal-related water crises in West Virginia and North Carolina, I couldn’t help but imagine the Moormans being poisoned by a mysterious chemical called MCHM, choked by toxic coal ash, or fouled by coal slurry.

In fact, it is my river that is threatened. And your river, too. We are all potential casualties of the kind of regulatory failures, political cronyism, and corporate avarice at the root of the three major water pollution crises that have occurred in our region in just the last six weeks.

By the same token, it’s our shared connection to the creeks and rivers running through our lives that unites us in the fight to protect our waters, and that’s what gives me hope.

First, the Freedom Industries chemical spill last month near Charleston, W.Va., left 300,000 people without safe tap water. Then one of Duke Energy’s coal ash dumps in North Carolina spilled into the Dan River, the third largest coal-ash spill in the U.S. Just a week later, a pipe at a Patriot Coal facility in West Virginia broke, oozing toxic coal slurry into a tributary of the Kanawha River.

Any one of these events would have served as a wake-up call about the vulnerability of our waters. Combined, they have touched off a national conversation about the widespread and deep cracks in the system that led to the disasters.

Appalachian Voices is a prominent voice in that conversation. Our team of water quality specialists responded to each crisis, taking water samples, documenting the incident, speaking with local residents, and providing the press with information and perspective that counters the “everything’s fine” mantra from the corporate and government flaks.

Our aim is to ensure that these spills are not allowed to pass into the nation’s distant memory without impelling real change in how our precious water resources are protected.

For our waters,
Tom

>> Visit AppalachianWaterWatch.org for data on the spills
>> Visit AV in the News for highlights of press coverage

KY and NC: Different States, Same Recipe for Lax Clean Water Enforcement

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 - posted by eric

Yesterday there was a hearing in Franklin Circuit Court for our ongoing challenge of a weak settlement that the state of Kentucky reached with Frasure Creek Mining. The settlement is a slap on the wrist that lets Frasure Creek off the hook for thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act, and it bears a striking resemblance to the settlement between North Carolina and Duke Energy that has come under scrutiny after the company’s coal ash spill into the Dan River.

It seems that there is a pretty standard recipe for how these Clean Water Act cases usually go:

Step 1: Citizens concerned about water quality uncover major problems.
Step 2: They form a coalition of other concerned groups and lawyers and file a 60-day notice of intent to sue (as required by law).
Step 3: Wait around for 57 to 59 days.
Step 4: On the last day of the 60 day waiting period the state agency, that has a very cozy relationship with the industry it is supposed to regulate, will come in and file a sweetheart deal with the polluter and blocks the citizens from being able to file suit.
Step 5: Citizens are then left to either try to intervene or challenge the weak settlement, but they are left with many legal hurtles and polluted water.

In North Carolina, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources blocked several citizen suits aimed at forcing Duke Energy to clean up their coal ash ponds, which have been leaching pollution into the state’s rivers and groundwater. Instead, DENR and Duke formed a settlement that came with a fine of just $99,000, and the requirement they assess pollution from their ash ponds, but nothing more. However, increased scrutiny as a result of the Dan River coal ash spill has put this settlement on hold. We can only hope that a better settlement will come out of this now.

Coal Ash in the Dan River, NC

In Kentucky, Appalachian Voices and our partners (KFTC, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance represented by Mary Cromer from Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and Lauren Waterworth) have challenged the way in which this most recent settlement with Frasure Creek was reached.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed a case in their own administrative court to block our suit against Frasure Creek. We were made full parties to that case but Frasure Creek and the Cabinet entered a weak settlement without our agreement anyway. Basically, we are arguing that excluding us violates due process rights and the settlement is invalid because you can’t have a valid settlement without the agreement of all the parties.

One of the main excuses the cabinet gave for cutting such a nice deal for Frasure Creek was their supposed financial problems, but they completely ignored the fact that Frasure Creek is owned by Essar Group, a giant, multi-billion dollar company, owned by a family of billionaires. Frasure Creek entered bankruptcy, but it was recently bailed out with $150 million from Essar.

This is the second of two outstanding cases we have in Franklin Circuit Court against Frasure Creek. The first began in 2011 and challenges a settlement that was based on false water monitoring data that we uncovered. After that case began, Frasure Creek started using a reputable lab and submitting more accurate water monitoring reports. Those new reports showed lots of water pollution violations, and those are the basis for the case that was at issue yesterday.

At the hearing yesterday, the judge asked a lot of good questions, and we are hopeful that he will do what is right for the water and people of Kentucky.

In all these cases it seems like the key to getting state agencies to do their job is attention from the press and scrutiny from the public. When it comes to corruption, it’s often said sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Feds Conduct Criminal Investigation of N.C. Agency Following Dan River Spill

Thursday, February 13th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg

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The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is the target of a federal criminal investigation following Duke Energy’s coal ash spill into the Dan River on February 2.

The U.S. Attorney’s office issued a grand jury subpoena requesting records from DENR related to coal ash discharges from the Dan River Power Plant including emails, memos and reports from 2010 to the present. Duke Energy confirmed to WRAL that it also received a subpoena, but the company is not required to disclose the contents of the subpoena.

Though this is shocking news, it’s not surprising considering DENR’s delayed response to the spill and the report last Friday showing that the agency assured the public for five days that arsenic levels in the Dan River were within safe human health standards, when in fact DENR’s own test results clearly showed arsenic levels were four times higher on the Monday and Tuesday following the spill.

Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years and received considerable campaign contributions from the company, told business leaders this year that his top priority is making environmental regulations more business friendly. McCrory appointed John Skvarla to head DENR. Since accepting that position, Skvarla has changed DENR’s mission statement to move the agency away from being “a bureaucratic obstacle of resistance” and toward becoming “a customer-friendly juggernaut.”

According to Amy Adams, a 9-year veteran of DENR who is now Appalachian Voices’ N.C. campaign coordinator, the customers of the agency are no longer North Carolinians or the state’s natural resources, but industry. Read her editorial about the “soul-crushing” takeover of DENR here.

If the agency entrusted with protecting North Carolina’s citizens and natural resources from pollution continues to pander to business interests rather than taking action to prevent environmental disasters, North Carolinians may have to endure more spills like the one that sullied the Dan River.

Dan River Update: Citizens Warned To Avoid Water Contaminated by Coal Ash Spill

Thursday, February 13th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg

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The N.C. Department of Health issued an advisory on Wednesday, warning citizens not to touch the Dan River, which was contaminated with coal ash 10 days ago after a storm water pipe broke at Duke Energy’s retired plant in Eden, N.C. The Department of Health also advised residents not to eat fish or mussels from the river.

Duke still has not come out with a cleanup plan for the spill, which has left parts of the Dan River unsafe for recreational use, including swimming and fishing.

This is not the first time that coal ash from a Duke Energy power plant has caused serious damage to North Carolina’s fishing stock. A study conducted last November by Dr. Dennis Lemly, a research biologist at Wake Forest University, showed that fish populations in Lake Sutton, outside of Wilmington, N.C, were suffering as a result of selenium poisoning from coal ash discharges by Duke Energy’s Sutton Power Plant. The study estimated that 900,000 fish were dying each year from selenium poisoning. Lake Sutton is still zoned as a fishery.

Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds are a danger to human health, drinking water, and the precious rivers and lakes North Carolinians use for boating, swimming, and fishing. How many rivers and lakes must we lose before this company properly handles its pollution? It’s time for Duke to stop putting our waterways at risk and clean up their coal ash once and for all! Take action here.

Pushing for Effective Coal Ash Rules

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

On Jan. 29, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was ordered to finalize the first-ever federal regulations for disposal of coal ash by Dec. 19, 2014, following a lawsuit brought by environmental and public health groups — including Appalachian Voices — and a Native American tribe. The settlement requires the agency to release a rule by the deadline, but will not influence the content of the rule. Read more about coal ash regulation on p. 16

In North Carolina, seven conservation groups, including Appalachian Voices, filed suit to participate in state law enforcement measures against Duke Energy. The utility’s illegal pollution of groundwater, lakes and rivers supplying drinking water for local communities spurred lawsuits from environmental and public health groups as well as the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.

Following a proposed settlement between the state and Duke Energy that does not require Duke to clean up its coal ash pollution, almost 5,000 citizens and organizations submitted comments opposed to the flawed agreement. Southern Environmental Law Center filed the motion in late January on behalf of the environmental organizations.

An Unforgettable Lesson, Forgotten

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

Five Years After the Kingston Coal Ash Spill

By Kimber Ray

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UPDATE: Immediately after this issue of The Appalachian Voice went to press, news broke of a coal ash spill at a Duke Energy coal ash impoundment in Eden, N.C. An estimate of approximately 35,000 tons of toxic ash spilled into the Dan River. The U.S. Attorney’s office has launched a federal criminal investigation into the spill and the state’s handling of coal ash. Read the latest on the Front Porch Blog.
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The black liner covering the coal ash containment cell, above, will be topped with two feet of soil and grass when the Tennessee site is converted to a park. Photo by Cat McCue.

The black liner covering the coal ash containment cell, above, will be topped with two feet of soil and grass when the Tennessee site is converted to a park. Photo by Cat McCue.

Just after midnight, a thunderous swell of sound peeled apart the silence that had settled onto Harriman, Tenn. A mountain of black coal ash — the waste byproduct of burning coal — descended upon the surrounding neighborhood, snapping trees and ripping three homes from their foundations. The Emory River was choked to a trickle as more than 300 surrounding acres were covered in a toxic sludge.

The 1.1 billion gallons of waste — with a nearly identical cleanup cost — that cascaded from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil coal-fired power plant on Dec. 22, 2008, marked the largest industrial spill in United States history. When the public took in the sight of 10-foot-high ash piles and dead fish strewn across a hellish scene that morning, no one could have anticipated what would follow.

“Fish Appear Healthy After TVA Coal Ash Spill,” reported a headline in The Chattanoogan nearly two years after the event. That same year, the Tennessee Department of Health released their final public health assessment: no evidence had been found of drinking or groundwater contamination. While the same cannot be concluded for the impoverished Alabama community where much of the coal ash was shipped, TVA ratepayers found that their wallets suffered more enduring damage than the environment.

“I couldn’t believe we weren’t finding more impact,” says Dr. Shea Tuberty, an associate professor of biology at Appalachian State University. For two years after the spill, Tuberty worked with a team of researchers and environmental stewards assessing the ecological impacts of the disaster.

Despite the magnitude of the spill, nature seemed to work to the advantage of the TVA: fresh sediment swept in from the Emory River, covering the ash not removed during the cleanup, and the Emory joined the massive flow of the Clinch and Tennessee rivers, effectively diluting much of what pollution remained.

Analysis of fish tissue did show elevated levels of selenium, arsenic and heavy metals, exposure to which can cause health effects including cancer, autoimmunity and respiratory illness. But on average, Tuberty says, levels seldom exceeded the toxic threshold dose that triggers these harmful effects. After observing levels of heavy metals in fish peak, then drop off to normal averages, the team decided to conclude their research.

The most overwhelming effect on the environment may have been the initial physical impact: the tsunami of ash and loss of habitat. Even weeks after the spill, Tuberty recalls water with the consistency of a milkshake, and fish with coal-black gills and stomachs full of ash.

But the TVA denied that fish had died. “They were picking up trash bags full of dead fish while they were slurping off all the coal ash,” Tuberty remarks. “That level of dishonesty was completely unnecessary.”

Aside from this, Tuberty says, the TVA also took some samples upstream from the site of the spill and — due to a mistake in their analysis — reported lower levels of heavy metals in fish than many outside studies. Given the diluting power of the rivers combined with sustained cleanup efforts, it seemed the TVA was scrambling to hide an environmental fallout that never came to pass.

The Tennessee Valley Authority purchased 180 surrounding properties after the catastrophic landslide of coal ash in Harriman, Tenn. Photo credit: Appalachian Voices.

The Tennessee Valley Authority purchased 180 surrounding properties after the catastrophic landslide of coal ash in Harriman, Tenn. Photo credit: Appalachian Voices.

But while the efficiency of the remediation was unexpected, the spill itself was not. The holding cell for the coal ash was never built right. Sitting on a tenuous water foundation, its 60-foot-high walls were made of recycled coal ash sediment and lacked any reinforcing steel or concrete. Residents had reported seeing workers fix leaks in the wall several times in the decade leading up to the spill.

According to a report filed by TVA Inspector General Richard Moore in 2009, engineering consultants had warned the utility in 1985, and again in 2004, that the wall might fail. Yet due to a lack of state or federal regulations regarding coal ash — an absence that still exists today — the TVA was able to exercise their liberty to ignore these predictions.

Costs in the aftermath of the spill have been enormous — both economically and psychologically. Many residents chose to build their lives by the Kingston plant because of the area’s natural beauty. The adjacent reservoir was a popular birding area where you could see “huge populations of great blue herons and ospreys like pterodactyls landing on the trees in the spring,” recalls Tuberty. But for most residents, the damage and lingering fears of contamination were too great to allow them to remain in the homes they had grown to love.

The current price tag of remediation efforts has already exceeded $1 billion and, according to a TVA budget report released last fall, could rise to as much as $2 billion. These costs encompass site repair and cleanup, compensation to property owners and converting TVA’s other high-risk wet-storage facilities — where coal ash is mixed with water and stored in massive ponds — to safer dry-storage landfills that cannot break out in a catastrophic flood.

Ratepayers will shoulder most of this financial burden. Beginning in October 2009, more than nine million residents throughout TVA’s service territory experienced a rate increase of 69 cents per month. In order to foot the bill, this will continue through 2024.

Damage Displaced to Alabama

The cost of the spill was not limited to the Tennessee Valley. More than 300 miles away in Perry County, Ala., the social and environmental burden of more than four million tons of the 5.4 million-ton spill is borne by residents living in the small, rural community of Uniontown. Between 2009 and 2010, hundreds of trainloads of dry coal ash were shipped here — the heart of Alabama’s “Black Belt” — where more than 75 percent of residents are African American and nearly half live in poverty.

According to a study conducted in North Carolina, landfills are 2.8 times more likely to be sited in areas where the minority population exceeds 50 percent. This is a phenomenon known as “environmental racism,” and Dr. Robert Bullard, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and a founding voice for the environmental justice movement, believes this was at play when the Kingston coal ash was relocated from a predominantly white to a predominately black community.

Bullard adds that shipping the coal ash to Uniontown was only an extension of the initial injustice: the opening of the landfill in 2007 despite widespread opposition from the community. In both instances, residential concerns were ignored by elected officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

When the coal ash came, Bullard says, “Newspapers reported that the landfill was in an isolated location, there was no community opposition, and it would bring economic development.” A public hearing for residents to voice their concerns was held only after the permit for the landfill had already been signed. As for economic development, it was a hollow promise from the start. Jobs that arrived to help unload the coal ash are long gone — disappearing with the last train’s shipment.

Although there have have been no published studies on the human and environmental impact of the coal ash in Uniontown, the effect is palpable. The coal ash here was not subject to the same level of precaution as the remaining coal ash stored at Kingston; mounds of dry ash are visible above the tree line, lacking a protective cover to prevent dust from blowing into the neighborhood. It rises from the landfill to coat the cars and clotheslines of nearby residents.

“Landfills don’t make good neighbors,” Bullard says. “Before the landfill came, this land was basically farms, cattle fields and trees. People enjoyed working outside, but [now] you can smell the landfill. It’s destroyed their life, and it might destroy the land and their livelihood. And they’ve been powerless to stop it.”

With the help of attorney David Ludder, as well as attorneys from the environmental law firm Earthjustice, residents of Uniontown have filed a discrimination complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights. The office agreed to investigate the complaint this past July, but since then there has been no significant action.

This lack of action has been true for much of the national debate as well. The now-notorious Kingston coal ash spill shined a harsh spotlight on the absence of federal coal ash standards. It was not until October 2013 when a federal judge sided with environmental groups — including Appalachian Voices — that the EPA was ordered to comply with a congressional mandate to establish coal ash regulations. On Jan. 29, 2014, the EPA announced that these regulations will be published by Dec. 19, 2014. The strength of these forthcoming rules remains uncertain.

At the Kingston plant, the TVA is just a year away from bringing their site remediation efforts to a close. TVA Spokesman Scott Brooks says the disaster site will be converted to a park, with ballfields and a green space. “We’re going to leave the area around the spill as an asset to the community,” he adds.

Yet it would be no surprise if residents are not inclined to offer thanks for this “asset.” Much of the enormous cost for the Kingston coal ash spill has been passed off to the community. And with the debate about how to handle coal ash still unresolved, Kingston is at risk of becoming nothing more than a notation in an ongoing timeline of preventable accidents.

Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill Pollutes the Dan River

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Going back on its initial findings, DENR says samples taken near the site of the Dan River coal ash spill show arsenic levels four times higher than the state human health standard.

Going back on its initial findings, DENR says samples taken near the site of the Dan River coal ash spill show arsenic levels four times higher than the state human health standard.

Update: NC Admits Tests Show Levels of Arsenic Above Drinking Water Standards

Updated Feb. 10, 12:45 p.m.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported Friday afternoon that their tests from Monday and Tuesday of last week, the days following the Dan River coal ash spill, showed arsenic levels in the Dan River four times higher than the state water quality standards.

This is big news. For five days, the water reports from NC DENR said that arsenic levels were below drinking water standards when they were actually four times greater. Arsenic is a poison that can cause cancer and even death when consumed in high doses or over long periods of time.

An NC DENR employee claims to have accidentally compared the sample results with arsenic standards for aquatic life instead of human drinking water standards. They changed the report on Friday without alerting the public of the mistake. Read more here.

The City of Danville’s water intake is just 20 miles downstream from the spill, but Danville city officials maintain that treated water at the plant did not exceed the arsenic limit on Tuesday.

The EPA will release it’s test results soon. See a map of their sample sites here. A map of sites we tested can be found here.

Coal ash ponds across the state contain arsenic that leaches into groundwater, posing a risk for neighboring communities who drink, bathe, and cook with water containing elevated levels of arsenic, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals.

Water samples from the recent coal ash spill illustrate that coal ash contains hazardous toxins that have the potential to poison North Carolinians’ drinking water. Tell Duke Energy it’s time to clean up their coal ash and stop putting our water at risk.

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Update: Appalachian Voices’ Water Testing Results Show Elevated Toxics

Updated Feb. 7, 5:00 p.m.

It’s been five days since the massive coal ash spill at Duke Energy’s plant on the Dan River, and Duke still has not stopped the flow of coal ash, though it has diminished considerably.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Waterkeeper Alliance released the results from their water testing yesterday. Read NC DENR’s results here.

Today, Appalachian Voices released our own water testing results which show values for several contaminants that exceed federal drinking water standards. For example, the arsenic level at the spill site was 95.1 parts per billion, nine and a half times the recommended drinking water standard. Downstream samples also exceeded the federal recommended drinking water and freshwater standards for aluminum, iron, manganese and lead. Read our full results here.

These results show that the Dan River has been negatively affected by the spill, but there is much more testing that needs to be done, since there are numerous, potentially harmful pollutants that have not been tested for, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds.

The water quality results from different organizations vary, however, this is due to the method of sampling. Appalachian Voices and the Waterkeeper Alliance chose to test unfiltered water because this better demonstrates the effects on aquatic life in the river. NC DENR chose to filter their water samples, which removes coal ash sediments. This is an accurate way to test the safety of drinking water, which is being filtered at the Danville, Va., water treatment facility.

The results of these tests should be a wake up call. The spill in Eden, N.C., is an example of the threat coal ash ponds across the state pose. Tell Duke that it is time to protect our water resources from the dangers of coal ash once and for all.

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Updated Feb. 6, 1:00 p.m.

Four days after the Dan River coal ash spill, Duke Energy still has not successfully stopped the flow of heavy metals, polluted water, and chemicals into the Dan River. Take action by clicking here or on the image above to send a letter to Duke Energy telling them enough is enough, it’s time to clean up the coal ash threatening North Carolina’s waters.

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A ruptured storm water pipe was quickly identified as the source of the coal ash polluting the Dan River. But so far, there has been no solution to completely stop coal ash from reaching the river.

A ruptured storm water pipe was quickly identified as the source of the coal ash polluting the Dan River. But so far, there has been no solution to completely stop coal ash from reaching the river.

Update Feb. 5, 5:00 p.m.

Since Monday night, Appalachian Voices has been on the scene of the massive coal ash spill that originated at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River Steam Station and continues to pollute the Dan River.

At the site of the spill and for several miles downstream, our water quality specialists have been collecting water samples and documenting the spill. Check out our Flickr for the most recent images. Greenpeace has also captured amazing aerial views of the spill, available on their Flickr.

In addition to documenting the spill, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator, Amy Adams, and Director of Programs Matt Wasson have been speaking with reporters to ensure that citizens are informed of the spill and continue to receive accurate information.

Check out some of the stories here, here, and here.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources states that the water in the Dan River is “NOT safe” and that they will receive lab results for heavy metals tomorrow.

The city of Danville, Va., says that their water treatment facility has been able to treat the coal ash contamination thus far, and that the water coming from their facility is safe to drink. But further downstream, officials in Virginia Beach halted water intakes on Lake Gaston, a reservoir linked the Dan River Basin, to assure residents their drinking water would not be contaminated by the spill.

More than 73 hours later, Duke Energy still has not successfully stopped the flow of coal ash coming from the ruptured storm water pipe that runs under the pond.

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Appalachian Voices' Matt Wasson tests water from the Dan River near the site of a coal ash spill.

Appalachian Voices’ Matt Wasson tests water from the Dan River near the site of a coal ash spill. Photo by Eric Chance (View more photos)

Since Sunday night, coal ash has been spilling into the Dan River from a coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C. The spill began when a storm water pipe under one of the plant’s coal ash pond burst, causing solid coal waste and toxic water held in the basin to flow through the pipe into the river.

Duke estimates that up to 27 million gallons of water from the basin and as much as 82,000 tons of solid ash have entered the river. But the company still has not successfully stopped the flow, according to Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert.

Duke did not publicly report the spill until after 4 P.M. on Monday evening, though it was first noticed by a security guard who saw that the water level in the ash pond was lower than usual around 2 P.M. on Sunday.

Throughout the day, residents saw the Dan River changing colors and ash washing up on the river banks. Duke has not released any water testing results, despite the high levels of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, selenium, mercury, lead, and boron, present in coal ash. The drinking water source for Danville, Va., is located just twenty miles downstream from the breach.

Appalachian Voices water quality specialists traveled to Eden, N.C., last night to sample the cloudy river and document the spill. “It’s pretty clear that there is a lot of ash that has already migrated,” says Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices, “the water is very gray and the sediment has coal ash in it. Already, the spill has clearly traveled to Danville.”

Although Duke claims that the dam itself, which is holding back 27 acres of coal ash, remains secure, they also report that erosion has occurred on one side of the dam. The ash basin is rated “high hazard” by the EPA meaning that dam failure would likely cause serious property damage and human death.

“This is the latest, loudest alarm bell yet that Duke should not be storing coal ash in antiquated pits near our state’s waterways,” says Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Duke is currently being sued by the state for unpermitted coal ash discharges at all 14 of its coal-fired power plants. Although seven of the plants are retired, the coal ash remains on site, posing a serious danger to neighboring residents and North Carolina’s surface and groundwaters.

There are 27 coal ash ponds in the state, many of which are just as likely as the Dan River pond to breach and cause serious damage and loss of human life. Even when coal ash is properly contained, the EPA reports that residents living near coal ash ponds are 9 times more likely to develop cancer than someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day.

This spill comes only four months after coal ash from Duke’s Sutton Power Plant contaminated the groundwater of a community near Wilmington, N.C., forcing residents to switch to another drinking water source.

Duke Energy claims that they are “committed to closing ash basins in a way that protects groundwater long-term and is prudent for customers and neighbors” and yet all of their coal ash ponds are currently leaking into ground and surface waters.

This is not the first time that coal ash has spilled into waterways, but it’s time for Duke Energy to do its part to make it the last.

Visit Appalachian Voices’ Red, White, and Water page to learn more about our work to pressure Duke Energy and other coal-burning utilities to clean up properly store coal ash in dry, lined pits away from precious water resources.