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NC Coal Ash Spill Demonstrates Urgent Need to Close Ponds

The EPA doesn’t need yet another reason to require the safe closure of the nation’s 1,070 coal ash ponds. But the massive leak of 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash from Duke Energy’s Dan River Power Station this week should set off a siren to wake our sleeping regulators.

Duke closed this North Carolina power plant in 2012, leaving its 58-year old, unlined coal ash pond containing about 100 million gallons of toxic ash open to the elements. The catastrophic spill should have been no surprise. The news comes just days after the EPA settled a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice and 11 other groups to finalize the first-ever federal protections from coal ash.

An estimated 82,000 tons of ash have leaked into the Dan River. (Photo courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins)An estimated 82,000 tons of ash have leaked into the Dan River. (Photo courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins)

While the magnitude of the spill has not yet been determined and the leak has not yet been fixed, so far the equivalent of 3,300 dump trucks of coal ash have flowed into the river, poisoning water quality, threatening drinking water and posing long-term harm to aquatic life. According to EPA figures, the amount of arsenic contained in the 82,000 tons released by Duke is about 7,300 pounds, and this does not include the significant amount of heavy metals in the 27 million gallons of water also released into the river.

How can a 27-acre lagoon of toxic waste, with earthen walls six-stories high, sit for years on the bank of a river after closure of the plant—in light of the obvious threat posed to human health and the environment by its failure? The Dan River is the source of drinking water for 43,000 in Danville, VA, just six miles downstream. Coal ash from the spill was found in the river at least 20 miles downstream.

Coal ash in the Dan River. (Photo courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins)Coal ash in the Dan River. (Photo courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins)

These dangerous toxic waste dumps exist because no law, state or federal, requires the safe closure of the hazardous and antiquated dumps. Across the nation more than 1,000 coal ash lagoons sit like ticking time bombs at both active and retired power plants, ignored by state and federal regulators until a disaster occurs. About a third of the ponds—309—have dams that are rated high hazard or significant hazard potential, meaning that failure would result in loss of life or significant environmental and economic harm. The state of North Carolina considers the Dan River Station dams to be “high hazard.” Yet there was no requirement for Duke Energy to render the old dump safe after shuttering the plant, and it took a security guard to notice the precipitous drop in the pond’s level of toxic waste and the hazardous sludge gushing from a broken stormwater drain.

Last week, the EPA agreed to a deadline by which it would issue a final rule to regulate coal ash disposal. The EPA’s rule must require the nation’s coal ash ponds to be safely closed and secured to prevent what we now know is inevitable—another major spill that poisons our water supplies, fouls our rivers and endangers our communities.

The coal ash-contaminated Dan River. (Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance)

The coal ash-contaminated Dan River. (Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance)

The unlined coal ash pits are located next to the Dan River. (Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance)

Duke closed the North Carolina power plant in 2012, leaving its 58-year old, unlined coal ash pond containing about 100 million gallons of toxic ash open to the elements.
(Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance)

Learn more about coal ash through an interactive infographic, and see coal ash-related videos, photo essays and more at Coal Ash Contaminates Our Lives:

The Coal Ash Problem, presented by Earthjustice.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.