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Fallout Continues From Dan River Coal Ash Spill

Duke Energy

While the frightful weather took a lot of attention this week in Charlotte, up north the fallout continued from a coal ash spill into the Dan River. A broken pipe in a Duke Energy ash pond poured over 30,000 tons of coal ash into the river, until crews plugged it a week ago.This week another pipe failed, releasing wastewater; the justice department began investigating the spill; and environmental groups now say they have found another, unrelated leak from the storage pond that holds the coal ash. WFAE’s Ben Bradford joined All Things Considered host Marshall Terry to discuss the latest.

TERRY: Ben, what’s going on up there?

BRADFORD: Well, these are three separate incidents. Let’s start with the wastewater that leaked into the river. Duke announced it yesterday. It says on Tuesday, a crew found a pipe they’d jerryrigged during the emergency was now leaking into the river.

TERRY: Was this more coal ash?

BRADFORD:  No, but the pipe’s malfunction is because of the clean-up. Basically, Duke’s diverted a pipe that would usually flow into the damaged ash pond to instead flow elsewhere. The pipe backed up and the water flowed out through other pipes into the Dan—about a thousand gallons as you said, of what’s apparently a mix of treated wastewater, and wastewater from other parts of the facility. Duke says it didn’t hurt the river, but state environmental regulators say it’s still a violation of the Clean Water Act, and they’re investigating it as such.

TERRY: Those are the same environmental regulators who received a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Raleigh this week.

BRADFORD:  Right. An agency representative has to appear before the grand jury next month, with documents related to the Dan River ash pond and the spill. Duke has confirmed it received a subpoena as well. And that’s about all we know.

TERRY: Do you have a sense of what they’re investigating?

BRADFORD: The subpoena very specifically requests documents related to the time of the spill and when regulators responded. And it asks for e-mails between Duke and the state about seepages, places where water leaks out of the earthen ash pond and into the river. There’s some speculation that the feds might be investigating the relationship between the state and Duke, but absolutely no proof.

That’s because the state’s had evidence of unauthorized seeps for years—but hasn’t done anything until it launched lawsuits against all of Duke’s ash ponds last year … but only in time to block environmental groups from getting involved, and then it very quickly began settling with the utility, which the environmental groups call a sweetheart deal. The state is putting the settlement on hold after the spill, by the way.

TERRY: And very quickly, what’s this about another leak at the Dan River plant?

BRADFORD:  One environmental group, the Waterkeeper Alliance, says it’s found a much smaller leak that’s discolored some rocks, and that their water tests show arsenic contamination among other things. The state and EPA are both doing further testing, but so far the state says it looks like the discoloration is natural. I’ll let you know when we find out more.