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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.

A Carolina May Be Leading The Nation In Coal Ash, But It Might Not Be The One You Think

Duke Energy plant
Duke Energy

A few days after the General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act last fall, Governor Pat McCrory recorded a video and made a claim many in his Republican party have since proudly repeated.

“This bill makes North Carolina the national leader in acknowledging and attacking the coal ash problem that has been building for more than half a century,” McCrory says in the video.

Acknowledging and attacking hasn’t, so far, led to any moving of coal ash. And as far as being a national leader, it’s actually one of our neighbors - South Carolina – that may lay a better claim, says Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“That Coal Ash Management Act has been in place for months, and as of today, not one ounce has been moved as a result of that act,” says Holleman. “Meanwhile the ash and pollution has been cleaned up in South Carolina for years.”

Duke Energy operates in both states. In North Carolina, it is by far the dominant utility and has about 120 million tons of coal ash. In South Carolina, it’s one of three main utility companies, and has around 10 million.

“So North Carolina is vastly bigger in scope and scale but it’s also the location where the Dan River ash release occurred last February,” says Erin Culbert, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy. “And that has spurred North Carolina legislators to pass a very complex new state law.”

Culbert says a more simplified regulatory environment in South Carolina makes it easier to get coal ash moved there.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center and the three main utilities that operate in the state, struck an agreement to get nearly all coal ash moved to lined landfills. Some of it is being moved already.

Holleman praises what has happened in South Carolina and says citizen lawsuits brought by the SELC have moved things along there. 

'(What would) a career state employee have to gain by entering into some sort of special relationship with Duke? It's very hurtful when you hear that, actually.'

And he says, there’s another reason why it has not happened here: “The very, very close relationship between the regulator and Duke Energy.”

“That’s insane,” says Tom Reeder an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.”(What would) a career state employee have to gain by entering into some sort of special relationship with Duke? It’s very hurtful when you hear that, actually.” 

Reeder estimates that between 100 and 200 DENR employees are working on the coal ash issue at any one time. It’s the largest mobilization within DENR on a single problem in his 18 years at the Department.

“You know this is kind of like sending a man to the moon, just not nearly as glamorous,” Reeder says.

When asked why South Carolina was able to launch its program to move coal ash, but North Carolina is still stuck on the ground, Reeder offers this assessment: “The short answer to that, is EPA did not make them go through the levels of scrutiny that we’re going through today. That’s the short answer. I don’t know how long it took them to actually get coal ash actually moved, but I’ve said publicly my goal, and I still hope to get this goal, is to have us start moving coal ash within a year of the passage of these bills. So sometime in the summer of 2015.”

That goal seems optimistic, given all that’s going on.

Duke Energy recently appealed a $21 million fine associated with groundwater contamination and coal ash, and more fines could be coming. The Coal Ash Management Commission has suspended its meetings, waiting for the resolution of a legal fight between the Governor and Legislative leaders. And opposition is mounting to Duke’s plan to move coal ash to two lined landfills in Lee and Chatham counties.

Meanwhile, about three million gallons a day of potentially toxic water is seeping out of coal ash pits and into North Carolina’s soil, rivers, and – possibly - drinking water. 

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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