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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.

Coal Ash Spill, One Year Later

Tom Augspurger (l), USFWS, taking core sample during February 8th reconnaissance of Dan River coal ash spill.
Steve Alexander

In retrospect, running a storm pipe under an unlined coal ash pit was a bad idea. One year ago today, such a pipe under such a pit leaked 39,000 tons of toxic ash into the Dan River.

A week after the spill, Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks all but admitted the design was flawed.

“It was not a design that we placed in our other plants, certainly, and it was not the original design of the plant,” he said then. “So it’s something we’ll have to look at in our investigation.”

A few months after the leak, Senate Leader Phil Berger – who lives in Eden, just a few miles from the shuttered Dan River power plant - had introduced a bill to deal with the coal-ash problem.

“This is the most comprehensive and far-reaching coal ash bill in the nation,” Berger told the media.

Berger isn’t likely ever to be confused with an environmentalist, but he led an effort to reject the House version of the bill he said was too lenient. When his bill finally passed and became law without Governor Pat McCrory’s signature, it ordered Duke to clean up coal ash pits at all 14 sites across the state, within 15 years. It also created the Coal Ash Management Commission to offer recommendations for those closures.

What it didn’t do was say who was going to pay for it all. Duke Energy estimates it could cost $10 billion.

“To the extent that cleanup costs are passed on to the residents and businesses of North Carolina through higher power rates, everyone who uses power will share the expense,” Chairman Michael Jacobs said in his opening remarks at the first CAMC meeting.

The day before that first meeting, Governor McCrory had sued his fellow Republican legislators, saying the creation of the Commission usurped his constitutional authority.

The spill has been a political problem for the Governor since it was discovered.

McCrory worked for Duke Energy for 29 years. This past August, it was revealed that he had misstated when he sold his Duke stock, originally claiming it was before the coal ash spill, when, in fact, he had sold it after.

“We haven’t broken any rules or ethics violations or anything,” McCrory said. “And I was very transparent that I did own it. I was 29 years, and I’m proud of that experience and I had a 401k retirement account, like many of you may have had, or still have.”

The political and legal fights sparked by the coal ash spill are likely to continue for a long time. But it’s the fight on the ground that may eventually drive the coal-ash debate.

Late in 2014, Duke Energy began to formulate its first plan: to move coal ash from the highest-risk sites to two abandoned clay mines in Chatham and Lee Counties.

“We’ve only got five years to completely close these high-priority sites, so we have to begin to move ash now,” said Brooks. “If we don’t start with real-world applications today, we’ll never make that timeline.”


'In effect, we're having a spill every day in North Carolina. All of these sites are leaking. Some of them, staggeringly.'

Duke’s plan has drawn sharp criticism from many local residents.

“Why is it that the first site Duke Energy picked was near the Charlotte Douglas airport?” says Bob Smith, who lives in Sanford. “And the only thing I can think of is the people over there rejected it because the Governor is the former mayor over there.”

So, one-year after the Dan River spill, coal ash is a household term in North Carolina, but a solution is still a long way off.

“We’ve got to get it out of these unlined pits and we have to get it to safe, lined storage,” says Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Every day we run the risk of another Dan River disaster. And, in effect, we’re having a spill every day in North Carolina. All of these sites are leaking. Some of them, staggeringly.”

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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