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One year after spill, NC is moving forward on coal ash

Mark Bishopric, a managing partner of Three Rivers Outfitters, paddles past the Duke energy Dan River Steam Station Tuesday. Coal ash was leaked into the river below the steam station. The Dan River in Eden, N.C. was running high Tuesday, February 25, 2014. New estimates by a team of experts using a drone say a coal ash pond at Duke Energy's Dan River Steam Station leaked at least 35 million gallons tons of coal ash into the Dan River after a drainage pipe running beneath the coal ash pond failed pouring the substance into the waterway. (John D. Simmons/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

The Feb. 2, 2014 spill at Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C., caused the state to work toward creating regulation regarding the storage and management of coal ash at Duke Energy’s 14 coal facilities.

Tiffany Haworth, director of the Dan River Basin Association, said in an email that while the river is now safe for recreation and aquatic life, the effects of the spill on future aquatic life are unknown.

“The fact remains that over 30,000 tons of coal ash containing heavy metals remains at the bottom of the Dan River,” Haworth said.

A statement from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said water quality levels improved to their previous conditions over the months following the spill, and a water advisory was removed in summer 2014.

The Coal Ash Management Act, which became law in September, required Duke Energy to close four high-risk facilities by Aug. 1, 2019.

Frank Holleman, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the state has not done enough in the past year.

“Duke has agreed to clean up four sites but has yet to start moving any ash,” Holleman said. “That means there are 10 other sites in North Carolina that Duke has not pledged to clean up.”

The new state law also required the formation of a commission that classifies waste ponds into risk categories by the end of 2015.

The commission — made up of nine political appointees — has been tasked with approving risk categories made by DENR, as well as Duke Energy’s closure plans, which must be submitted by the end of 2016. Holleman said creating a commission will only cause further delay in cleanup.

“Everyone knows that the way to deal with the risks from coal ash and the pollution from coal ash is to move ash to better storage,” he said. “We don’t need another bureaucracy, a new commission to tell us that.”

Michael Jacobs, a UNC business professor and chairman of the commission, said it should help alleviate the concerns of people critical of DENR’s spill response.

“It seems odd that a group which is highly critical of DENR would not welcome independent oversight of DENR’s coal ash plans,” Jacobs said in an email.

In December, the EPA classified coal ash as solid waste, like household trash, rather than hazardous waste.

Sam Perkins, Catawba riverkeeper, said there’s a federal classification for coal ash waste. One of the high-risk sites sits on Mountain Island Lake, connected to the Catawba River.

“For a long time, household trash like a banana peel was more regulated than coal ash,” Perkins said.

Jacobs said it’s important to consider that coal ash could be recycled into cement instead of just storing it.

“There has been surprisingly little effort put into exploring recycling options by regulators and environmental groups,” Jacobs said.

Though there’s now a law in place, Holleman believes it is time for the state to get serious about cleaning up its waters.

“There are a lot of complicated issues in energy and environmental policy — this is not one of them.”

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