CLEVELAND — At a recent town hall session in Cleveland, state Sen. Brent Jackson said changes had to be made in the wake of the Duke Energy coal ash spill, but said there was no reason to get caught up assigning blame to a decades-old problem.
He and two other lawmakers touched on environmental issues at a time when the topic is prominent in the state. Days after the Feb. 27 town hall session it was revealed that Duke relied on more pipes similar to the one that collapsed than it initially reported, including one already leaking. Thursday a judge ruled Duke must halt groundwater pollution at ash sites. And Friday the Environmental Protection Agency announced a third leak had been discovered while the state evironment agency announced that Duke had violated federal environmental laws and could face finess.
Jackson, who represents Cleveland, co-chairs the committees on Agriculture/Environment/Natural Resources and Appropriations on Natural and Economic Resources. His largely rural district stretches from southern Johnston County to Duplin and Sampson counties. This week he said the issue will likely come up in committee meetings, though he said Monday that last week’s events didn’t change much.
Cleveland Rep. James Langdon said at the Cleveland town hall that the pipes have been part of the plants for decades, implying this incident had little to do with the current administration. One of the pipes in question – underground corrugated metal pipes considered relatively weak – collapsed at coal treatment facility in Eden on Feb. 2. As much as 39,000 tons coal ash from an unlined storage pond above flowed into the pipe and into the Dan River, a water source for nearby communities. The ash – a byproduct of the energy plants – contains heavy metals that can be toxic in high enough quantities.
Toxic metals at potentially unsafe levels have been reported near some of North Carolina’s coal ash ponds since 2008, when the issue entered the public consciousness after a massive spill in Tennessee.
Jackson said the General Assembly was looking at changes that could prevent such problems in the future.
“It’s a mess. Let’s get this problem fixed, let’s get it corrected,” Jackson said. “bottom line in some point in the near future my hope is that duke will clean up those coal ash ponds.”
He said Duke would have penalties to pay, and said Duke would be treated like any other business. He didn’t think the close ties between Duke and government -- Gov. Pat McCrory worked for nearly three decades as an employee and former Duke employees now work for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources -- played a role in the lax oversight.
Before the spill, DENR had agreed settled with Duke, a $50 billion company, for $99,111 to resolve violations over groundwater contamination leaching from ash dumps. DENR stepped in when last summer the Southern Environmental Law Center threatened to sue over the structural integrity of the ponds.
Jackson, meanwhile, expressed some understanding for Duke’s situation, and framed the situation as a long-existing problem most were unaware of. The coal-fired plant was built in 1948.
Leaks and overall structural integrity, not pipes in particular, were the focus of prior concerns of environmental groups regarding the coal ash ponds.
A growing problem
“In fairness to Duke, if they’ve seen the concrete end on the river side, and seen the concrete end on the plant side, I don’t think anyone would have thought the whole pipe wasn’t concrete,” Jackson said.
Last Wednesday Duke Energy disclosed that it had found eight more corrugated metal pipes at power plants that store coal ash after telling state regulators that the Dan River pipe was the only one made of the weaker material.
A second pipe at the Dan River plant pipe was found to be leaking into the river last month, but Duke still says those two pipes are the only ones that run under coal ash ponds.
Thursday’s 17-page court order from Judge Paul Ridgeway commanded the company to take “immediate” action to eliminate any environmental threat posed by the 106 million tons of ash in the state, 84 million tons of which soak in ponds like the one in Eden. There are 14 unlined earthen ponds in the state.
While the exact instructions of what needs to be done weren’t spelled out in explicit terms. Duke said Thursday that it anticipates its 3.2 million North Carolina customers will pay costs of closing its ash ponds. It estimates the cost of closing its ponds in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I don’t see any way around that,” Jackson said of customers paying for the process.
Duke could appeal Ridgeway’s decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals. But no decision had been made by late Thursday.
Officials with DENR have said simply removing the ash may not be the best approach at all sites. They’ve also resisted remedies that have the potential to tie the agency up in court for years.
Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland