by Jim Longworth


Duke Energy is quick to ask for rate hikes, but slow, it seems, when it comes to notifying residents about toxic spills. Earlier this month, a 48-inch stormwater pipe broke just beneath a coal ash holding pond at Duke’s dormant Eden power plant, dumping more than 80,000 tons of sludge into the Dan River before the leak was plugged.

According to a report by the Winston-Salem Journal’s Bertrand Gutierrez, Duke Energy did not know exactly how much coal ash had spewed into the river, or how long it had been leaking by the time they discovered the problem, and then it took them 26 hours to notify towns downstream of the contamination. And so we have two problems. The toxic spill, and the unacceptable response time.

Duke Energy has dormant plants and coal ash holding ponds all over the state, and most of them are in violation of one thing or another. The Eden facility, for example, was rated as a “high hazard” by the North Carolina Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources. One reason, as was reported by the Greensboro News & Record, is because of the close proximity of the “earthen dike” to the river itself. But in fact, this month’s spill was a hazard waiting to happen. The State’s Division of Energy spokesperson Steve McEvoy told the News & Record editorial staff that though Duke Energy’s dike had been inspected, the pipe had not. Proper monitoring and inspection of the pipes would have required closed circuit cameras, something Duke reportedly never invested in.

And it’s not as though Duke Energy was unaware that they needed to monitor their ponds and pipes. According to the News & Record’s Margaret Moffett Banks, state environmental officials have been after Duke to fix problems at all 12 of their coal-fired plants and 30 ponds, including those at Eden, Asheville, and along the Catawba River. But instead of mitigating problems, Duke Energy has fought the state’s request for accountability and clean up, tooth and nail, which is why our environmental agency had to take the energy giant to court back in August. Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental law Center is suing Duke Energy to try to force the company to clean up widespread coal ash pollution.

And so, none of us should be shocked, or surprised, that Duke officials sat on their collective asses for more than a day before picking up the phone to let folks know that their river had been contaminated. Still, they broke no law in waiting.

That’s because our archaic and business friendly state law only requires notification of such spills within 48 hours of discovery. That needs to change. State Rep.

Pricey Harrison of Guilford County is pushing for new regulations on how coal ash is stored, so hopefully she will now tack on a provision that requires immediate notification when toxic spills occur.

Clearly, Duke Energy is aware that problems exist with its holding ponds, and, up until now, they have been slow to cooperate with state agency requests to fix those problems. But the Dan River spill was high profile and it prompted a high profile response. Governor McCrory met with Duke officials last week and received their assurance that they would “mitigate any current and long term effects of the very serious incident” at the Eden plant. Still, they made no public promise to expedite that same sort of mitigation in their other facilities. The question is, will Governor McCrory hold Duke’s feet to the fire for comprehensive reforms, and not just settle for corrective actions at the Eden plant alone? After all, McCrory worked for Duke Energy for nearly 30 years, and he is also a probusiness, anti-regulation governor.

Regardless of his loyalties and political principles, however, McCrory and his administration will likely keep a close eye on Duke Energy because the Feds are already keeping an eye on all parties concerned. According to WXII news, the U.S. Attorney’s office has issued a grand jury subpoena requesting records from Duke Energy and the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources. That’s the same agency who said the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history did not violate state water quality standards, even though the Dan River is now gray with coal ash sludge, and area residents are now being told by the NC Department of Health and Human Services not to eat fish near the site of the spill, and to avoid any contact with the river.

It seems like after every major spill, the responsible party always assures us that the pollutants will eventually be absorbed by the affected river or ocean. But having a little toxic coal ash in our water is like being a little bit pregnant. Duke Energy’s metaphorical condom broke, and now the rest of us are in a not so delicate condition because of their carelessness. Ours is a toxic relationship because the person who screwed us just happens to be our only available source of energy. It makes you sick to think about it, and even sicker if you go near the Dan River to think about it.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).