Dan River Steam Station

Duke EnergyThe Dan River Steam Station during less spilly times.

Retiring a coal power plant in North Carolina wasn’t enough to prevent it from fucking up the environment.

Tens of thousands of tons of coal ash and tens of millions of gallons of polluted water have burst out of Duke Energy’s shuttered Dan River Steam Station, severely soiling the Dan River — a waterway popular with hikers, campers, fishing folks, and recreational boaters. The pollution can be seen miles downstream.

The power plant operated from 1949 until 2012, and the coal ash being stored on site was residue left behind after coal was burned. Coal ash contains poisonous heavy metals including arsenic, mercury, and lead. A state agency and environmentalists have been suing Duke in an effort to force it to clear out 14 such coal-ash dump sites across the state, including the one that just ruptured.

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But Duke insisted that its dump sites were safe. Just last month, Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert told the Asheville Citizen-Times that the utility was monitoring groundwater around its coal-ash storage sites to ensure that its neighbors are protected. She rejected environmentalists’ calls for the coal-ash ponds to be cleaned up. “[S]pecial interest groups rely on emotion, not facts, to advance their mission to phase out coal,” Culbert told the newspaper.

It gets worse.

“We are confident,” Duke’s general manager at the power plant told the EPA in a 2009 letter, “that each of our ash basin dams has the structural integrity necessary to protect the public and the environment.”

We sure hope it felt nice to be so confident about that.

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Specifics on the spill are still hard to come by, but it appears that a 48-inch stormwater pipe burst at the power plant, releasing enough ash from a 27-acre storage pond to fill 20 or 30 Olympic-sized swimming pools. According to company estimates, 50,000 to 82,000 tons of ash flowed into the river, along with 24 million to 27 million gallons of tainted water.

The pipe gave way on Sunday, and the company is being criticized for waiting until Monday to tell anybody about the disaster.

Cue inevitable statements from environmentalists about Duke’s utter irresponsibility in allowing this disaster to happen. From the Charlotte Business Journal

“This is the latest, loudest alarm bell yet that Duke should not be storing coal ash in antiquated pits near our state’s waterways,” says Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

He noted that two South Carolina utilities have taken steps to remove coal ash from earthen ponds and called Duke “grossly negligent” for not doing the same.

It’s not like this is the first time such a disaster has happened. After more than a million gallons of coal-ash slurry escaped from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in late 2008, the EPA vowed to craft new regulations to help prevent such disasters from happening again. We’re still waiting for those promised regulations.

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