The failure of a Duke Energy coal ash pond two months ago not only spilled at least 30,000 tons of the waste into the Dan River, it spurred new scrutiny of how Duke handles the waste, what chemicals are flowing into North Carolina waters, and how the state oversees all of it. It has led to numerous revelations about leaks or cracks in other ponds, wastewater pumped into rivers, lawsuits, and federal investigations. WFAE’s Ben Bradford joined Morning Edition host Kevin Kniestedt to discuss the latest.
KNIESTEDT: Let me ask you a general question, first. Since the Dan River spill, it feels like we’ve had near-weekly revelations about new problems. Why is that?
BRADFORD: It really does feel that way. After the spill, the state sent a team of inspectors to every one of Duke’s coal plants—as opposed to one inspector visiting every couple of years. Combined with investigations by environmental groups, it’s led to discoveries of all kinds of problems—one state official told me, once they started looking, they found a “house of cards.”
KNIESTEDT: What are some of those problems they’ve found?
BRADFORD: A rusted out pipe leaking wastewater at the Cliffside power plant—that’s on the border of Cleveland and Rutherford counties … Duke pumping 61 million gallons of ash pond water into a tributary of the Cape Fear River … followed by a 60-foot crack in a wall of the pumped ash pond. Friday afternoon, the state reported finding high levels of thallium in water at Cliffside and the Asheville plant.
KNIESTEDT: And thallium is the Agatha Christie poison I talked about.
BRADFORD: Right, it’s a famous poison and the murder weapon in one of her novels. It’s also one of many heavy metals that can be found in coal ash, along with arsenic, lead, selenium, and so forth. State regulators say it’s appearing in too high levels in groundwater near the plants, although the nearby rivers and drinking water are still fine. Really, it’s another indication of what we already knew—the ponds are made of earth, and the water leaks into the ground. They’re designed to do that.
KNIESTEDT: In response to these findings, the state has begun to issue notices of violation. What are those?
BRADFORD: Think of it like a ticket for a broken tail light. Duke has to fix the tail light and possibly pay a fine, or it can contest it. The state’s issued eight of these, most commonly for what it says are unauthorized discharges—basically, places where Duke is letting out polluted water where it doesn’t have a specific permit. State regulators have known about and overlooked a lot of these, but now they want permits, so they have tighter oversight.
And that signals a major change. Basically, the ash ponds have been allowed to leak into public waterways for decades, and the idea was that the amounts are small enough to be safely diluted by the larger water bodies. That may sound terrifying. If you think about it, it’s the same thing we do to our air. Car exhaust is poisonous by itself, but we breathe it all the time in our atmosphere. The question regulators have to answer is “what is a safe level?”
KNIESTEDT: State regulators are suing Duke. How does that factor into it?
BRADFORD: Yes. The state entered into a series of lawsuits against Duke last year, for these ash ponds leaking at all of their coal plants cross the state. Now, that had the effect of blocking planned lawsuits from environmental groups. And then the state quickly proposed a settlement that didn’t require stopping the leaks. So, this is where environmental groups accuse state officials and Duke of having too cozy a relationship. After the spill, the state changed course, asking Duke for plans to clean-up the ponds, and last week it pulled that settlement entirely.
KNIESTEDT: So, that sounds like regulators are cracking down.
BRADFORD: Which has started to cause some friction between regulators and the company. Duke has denied any wrongdoing in court at the ash ponds, and they’re disputing most of those “tickets” the state has issued. I’ve never heard a Duke spokesperson sound more frustrated. Because things that have been allowed for years are now being considered violations. At the same time, environmental groups think tickets aren’t a strong enough response.
KNIESTEDT: What do those groups want?
BRADFORD: They want Duke to be forced to remove the ash from the ponds, and put them into lined landfills away from rivers. This is where it gets complicated. Those environmental groups have a separate lawsuit, against state regulators—arguing the law requires them to stop the leaks immediately. And they won--the judge in the case agreed last month. Duke has appealed the decision, but so have state regulators. So, on one hand, regulators are cracking down. On the other, they’re appealing a decision that says they have to crack down.
KNIESTEDT: It sounds like a three-way battle between Duke, state regulators, and environmental groups, and they’re all fighting each other.
BRADFORD: That’s right.
KNIESTEDT: Very quickly, in addition to the lawsuits, there is some movement toward stopping the ash pond leaks. What is it?
BRADFORD: Duke has its own review team looking at how it handles the ash, and has told the state it will remove a few ponds, including at the Dan River and one from Asheville. It would give coal ash from the plant at Mountain Island Lake to Charlotte-Douglas airport for landfill. And, it would take the water out of the others over the next three years. That was all in a three-page letter from Duke to the governor and state environment officials. The state responded back pretty sharply, saying that wasn’t enough information.
KNIESTEDT: It costs millions of dollars to take those steps. Who will be on the hook for the bill?
BRADFORD: Duke says that’s up to the North Carolina Utilities Commissions, which has to approve any rate increases. Which is a fancy way of saying that Duke thinks ratepayers should pay for moving the ash ponds, as part of its normal cost of doing business.