East of Eden: NC Toxic Coal Ash Spill Defies State Borders

Hellish coal ash mess in North Carolina is Virginia’s problem, too.

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The Feb. 2 coal ash spill at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Plant in Eden, NC is now a big problem for the Commonwealth of Virginia. The public drinking water intake for Danville, VA is only six miles downstream of the spill in the Dan River, where the plant released 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of tainted water.

Duke’s coal ash turned the river gray for 20 miles east of the North Carolina border. About 7,200 pounds of arsenic entered the river, as well as other deadly metals. Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring promised that he would hold Duke responsible for the cleanup.

On Saturday, after nearly a week of failed efforts, Duke finally plugged the 4-foot diameter pipe through which ash poured into the river. But no cleanup has begun, and the long-term impacts of the spill on the health of the Dan River are unknown. There is hard work ahead, Duke admits. The 58-year old unlined lagoon still contains nearly a million tons of toxic waste, rendering it essential to stabilize the 27-acre dump on the riverbank and eventually remove the ash to protect the river and downstream communities from further injury.

This is not the first time that a major coal ash spill crossed state lines. In 2005, 100 million gallons of coal ash and water from the PPL Martin Creek Power Plant in Bangor, PA poisoned the Delaware River with arsenic in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, requiring the temporary shutdown of a public water supply plant. The massive spill could not be contained for four days, and ash covered riverbanks in both states.

Such disasters are likely to happen again. Most of the nation’s coal ash ponds are built on rivers and lakes where their failure threatens neighboring states—whose citizens have absolutely no control over the maintenance of the toxic dumps. The current patchwork of inadequate state regulation means that utilities can build dangerous dumps in a state with lax rules, with disasters having dire consequences across the border. Thus when the Governor of North Carolin, a former Duke executive, refuses to rigorously enforce environmental requirements, the citizens of Virginia are threatened as well.

Another good example is NIPSCO’s 2002 dumping of 175,000 tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan from its D.H. Mitchell plant in the coal-friendly state of Indiana, about a dozen miles from the Illinois border. Illinois residents had no say in the dumping from the Gary, Ind. plant. The only way to protect all Americans is for the EPA to establish a national standard for coal ash disposal and dam safety.

For 75 years, U.S. coal-burning power plants have enjoyed a free pass from federal rules. Consequently billions of tons of toxic ash are stored in earthen dams on our waterways. The pigeons are now coming home to roost, as these aging structures begin to fail. EPA’s final rule securing hundreds of dams and landfills cannot come soon enough for the protection of all American communities.

No cleanup of the coal ash has begun, and the long-term impacts of the spill on the health of the Dan River are unknown. (Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance)

Specializing in hazardous waste law, Lisa is an expert on coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal that burdens communities around the nation.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.