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Coal ash is the waste that remains when coal is burned. It is usually collected in a dump, known as a pond. North Carolina has more than 30 such sites in 14 different locations across the state. A pipe running under one of the ponds run by Duke Energy in Eden NC ruptured in February of 2014. The coal ash spilled, largely affecting the Dan River which flows into Virginia. The spill is the third largest of its kind in U.S. history.Many see potential complications because North Carolina's governor, Pat McCrory, worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.

Day 23 In Coal Ash: Drones; Settlements And Compelling Removal

Wake Forest University graduate student Max Messinger shows the unmanned aerial vehicle he flew over the coal ash pond where a spill took place earlier this month. A group at WFU provided an independent estimate of how much coal ash spilled into the Dan R
Jeff Tiberii

Officials with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) announced Tuesday they might require Duke Energy to remove all coal ash at the site of a massive spill near the Virginia border.

DENR sent a letter to Duke this week, three weeks after the largest spill of its kind in U.S. history. In the letter the state agency informed the utility it’s considering changes to a permit that regulates how much pollutants the company can legally release into the river. The possible change does not apply to the company’s 29 other unlined coal ash ponds.

“We’re considering reopening the permit and considering changes that if made they could compel Duke to move the ash to line landfills,” said DENR spokesman Jamie Kritzer.

DENR officials say there is no imminent risk at the site, but that they want to prevent further damage. Kritzer was asked why DENR wasn't potentially going to require Duke to remove all ash at facilities across the state.

“Because the Eden plant represents a catastrophic release and that’s why at this point we’re trying to address, take swift action to address this catastrophic failure first and foremost,” he said.

Duke response will take time

Duke has 60 days to respond because this is part of the permit process. In an email statement the company said it’s taking another look at how ash basins are managed and will determine the most appropriate resolution.

DENR also confirmed on Tuesday that it will again ask a judge to consider a proposed settlement it made with Duke about violations of the Clean Water Act. It’s unclear if DENR will adjust the proposed settlement or re-issue the same settlement. The recommendations from the state agency are expected by March 21st.

>> Read a history of the coal ash lawsuits.

Assessing things via drones

Meanwhile, a group of academic researchers have confirmed Duke Energy’s estimate on the amount of coal ash that spilled out of the unlined lagoon. The team from Wake Forest University used photos from a drone which flew over the pond and compared those with Google Earth images of the site prior the pipe failure.

'The results that we got did not indicate that Duke is hiding anything about the volume that left.' - Max Messinger

“The results that we got did not indicate that Duke is hiding anything about the volume that left. Ours are in-line with theirs. But I’d important that you have an independent estimate and confirm that,” said graduate student Max Messinger.

The small drone was flown over the site without incident five days after a stormwater pipe burst. That pipe as well as a second stormwater drain, have been plugged since the spill began February 2nd.

A series of subpoenas have been handed down as part of a federal criminal investigation looking at whether or not DENR officials illegally benefitted from the agency’s relationship with Duke.

>> Look at the coal ash disaster by the numbers - amount & cost

>> Browse all of our latest stories related to the coal ash spill.

Jeff Tiberii covers politics for WUNC. Before that, he served as the station's Greensboro Bureau Chief.
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