Duke Energy's Coal-Ash Cleanup: A Small Part Of The Bigger Picture

Jan 6, 2020

Duke Energy has finally agreed to defuse the time bombs it planted all over North Carolina.

On New Year’s Eve, Duke announced an agreement with the state to move 80 million tons of coal ash into lined landfills over the next 15 years. It will cost nearly $9 billion to relocate the ash from open ponds near six of Duke’s power plants, including ones at Lake Wylie and Lake Norman. It’s the biggest coal-ash cleanup in U.S. history.

Coal ash is a catch-all term for the stuff that’s left over after a power plant burns coal. Some of it is a fine powder, some of it is a wet sludge, and a lot of it is dangerous. It can contain mercury and arsenic and other deadly chemicals. That’s why there was such concern back in 2014 when a drainage pipe burst at the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C., spilling 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. It’s still not clear what the long-term effects of that spill will be. Some of that ash fell to the river bottom and it’ll never come out.

To give you a sense of the scale of the statewide coal-ash cleanup, 80 million tons is like the Dan River spill times 2,000.

This is all something that should have happened long ago. Duke has stashed its coal ash in ponds near their power plants for years because that’s the cheapest way to do it. But those power plants are near rivers, and it seems obvious that if you put a pond next to a river, at some point a pipe is going to break or a levee is going to breach. Water finds its level.

So Duke Energy is learning a lesson all of us learn at one time or another: The cheapest way out always costs you in the long run.

That’s also something that applies to us as the consumers of all that power. We have lopped off mountains for coal, and drained the earth from the inside for gas and oil. Our lust for cheap energy causes wars around the world and threatens the existence of our planet. But few of us seem to get as mad about any of that as we do when gas goes up a nickel.

Finding more sensible ways to power the world is humanity’s biggest long-term issue. One day, we’re going to look back at 80 million tons of coal ash as just a blip in the story. Either because we fixed our energy problem for good … or because we didn’t.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.