Duke Energy ‘sorry’ about coal ash spill

Credit: Duke Energy

This handout photo from Duke Energy shows a coal ash pond that was the site of a spill into the Dan River in Rockingham County, North Carolina.


by STUART WATSON / NBC Charlotte

Bio | Email | Follow: @stuartwcnc


Posted on February 17, 2014 at 7:33 PM

Updated Monday, Feb 17 at 8:00 PM

An executive for Duke Energy has apologized to state lawmakers in Raleigh for a massive coal ash spill on the Dan River and promised to clean it up, but environmentalists scolded the giant utility for not doing enough to prevent future spills.

A security guard first alerted Duke to the coal ash spill on the Dan River near Virginia on Sunday, February 2. It took Duke five days to completely plug the leak and who knows how long to clean it up.

But Duke executive George Everett told state lawmakers on the Environmental Review Commission that he is sorry and the utility accepts responsibility.

Environmentalists say the bigger question is how to prevent similar spills at much larger coal ash dumps including one at the Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake – the primary source of drinking water for Charlotte, Gastonia and Mount Holly.

Rick Gaskins of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation told lawmakers that failures of earthen dams holding back millions of tons of toxic coal ash are predictable.

The Southern Environmental Law Center representing environmental groups has repeatedly sued Duke Energy over leaks at the coal ash dumps, which it says are violations of state law.

But the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural resources (known by the acronym DENR) has stepped in claiming it is the primary enforcer.

That has led environmentalists to publicly complain that DENR is a toothless hound unwilling to enforce even weak laws.

At Monday’s committee meeting DENR Secretary John Skvarla insisted his department had not blocked anyone from filing suit and saying when he consulted Governor Pat McCrory about filing lawsuits on the department’s behalf, McCrory simply instructed him to protect the public and do the right thing.

McCrory worked for Duke for more than 28 years and still owns an undisclosed amount of Duke stock valued on state ethics forms at over $10,000.

A federal grand jury in Raleigh has subpoenaed records from Duke and DENR as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

Environmentalists want Duke to dry out the old, leaky coal ash ponds, dig up tons of coal ash and truck it to lined landfills that will not leak into drinking water supplies.

Duke has said it intends to close the coal ash ponds but will study the matter first and has set no timetable for eliminating them and offered no guarantees it will truck the coal ash to lined landfills.

Historic satellite photos available on Google maps show that Duke has previously dried out and dredged some of the coal ash lagoons as they filled up to generate more capacity.

So Rick Gaskins and other environmentalists have criticized Duke for what they see as foot-dragging, especially in light of the recent spill.

Gaskins told the Commission that of 45 “high hazard” coal ash dumps in the U.S., 12 are in North Carolina and four are on the Catawba River which supplies more than a million people in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties with most of their drinking water.