Duke Energy NC coal ash spill signifies third largest in U.S. history

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EDEN, NC, Feb. 6, 2014 -- On Monday, Feb. 3, Duke Energy, the largest electric power holding company in the U.S., reported that it spilled between 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River between the city of Eden, N.C., and Danville, Va., polluting the waterway and potentially threatening public health.

The spill was caused by a break in a 48-inch stormwater pipe located underneath Duke's unlined 27-acre, 155-million-gallon ash pond on Sunday afternoon, ultimately draining an estimated 24 to 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River. The occurrence signifies the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Coal ash is the waste left after burning coal in a power plant. Containing heavy metals and other toxic compounds such as arsenic, boron, chromium, selenium, mercury, and lead, it is a serious threat to aquatic ecosystems and local drinking water. Further, a 2009 EPA technical report classified Duke's 53-year old Dan River ash pond dams "significant hazard potential structures." Field inspections found them leaking and their surfaces sliding.

Duke Energy's Dan River Steam Station (Photo credit: Duke Energy)

A security guard who noticed unusually low water in the ash pond at the shuttered coal plant led to the discovery of the spill. As such, most of the water had escaped and contaminated the river before anyone at Duke noticed. Eyewitness sightings also claimed the Dan River was "running black" on Monday. Neither Duke nor any government regulator issued a press release to inform the public about the spill until 24 hours after it was discovered.

In 2013, the state of North Carolina filed lawsuits accusing Duke of illegal pollution discharges from leaks in its coal ash ponds at all 14 of its coal-fired power plants, including the company's Dan River Steam Station in Eden. Duke stopped generating electricity at the coal plant in 2012, but the ash remained impounded at the site.

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