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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.

Advisory Council Says Almost All Coal Ash Basins 'Low Risk'

Dan River
Steven Alexander, USFWS

An advisory board created by Duke Energy says nearly all of the company’s coal ash ponds in North Carolina can safely be capped in place.

The National Ash Management Advisory Board was created by Duke Energy a few months after the Dan River spill. It is made up of engineering faculty from across the country and executives from the private sector.

“The kinds of recommendations that we make, we believe, will have an impact industry-wide,” said John Daniels back in 2014. He’s the chair of the Engineering Department at UNC-Charlotte and also chairs the National Ash Management Advisory Board.

Daniels and the Board discussed coal ash basins and their risk to groundwater with the Charlotte Business Journal last week. As reported by the CBJ, Daniels says: "the evidence shows that the state could best serve environmental and safety interests by labeling almost all the ponds “low risk” under N.C. law." Daniels also says computer models show that coal ash would not be a threat to nearby groundwater, and, due to the low risk, that the basins could safely be capped in place.

When asked by the Charlotte Business Journal about possible criticism that the Advisory Board is “bought and paid for” by Duke Energy, Daniels said: “All these reports have been submitted, signed and sealed by professional engineers and scientists… They are professionals, and that matters more than who they are working for.”

Last month, the state Department of Environmental Quality, working under the Coal Ash Management Act, had a much different assessment of the same basins, and classified only four of the basins low-risk - and left eight others in a temporary "Low-Intermediate" classification.

Environmental groups called that assessment “lacking” and expressed a concern that DEQ was too cozy with Duke Energy.

“It’s really a sad state of affairs to have a state agency that is supposed to be protecting the people of the state to be operating on such a level of lack of confidence and ability,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

If the state were to agree with the National Ash Management Advisory Board and not require Duke Energy to excavate a majority of its coal-ash-basins, it would save the country’s largest electric utility billions of dollars in clean-up costs.

Duke Energy is already excavating coal ash from four high risk basins.

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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