Cleaning up coal ash ponds
Duke Energy Chief Executive Lynn Good says customers should shoulder the cost of cleaning up Duke’s coal ash ponds. State Attorney General Roy Cooper says he’ll fight that idea in court. Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Duke executive, says he doesn’t want to take sides because that would be politicizing the issue.
Whoa, whoa and whoa.
Before we start debating who gets the bill, we need to know more about the spills. What did Duke and state regulators know about potential leaks at coal ash sites — and when did they know it? Should Duke have taken more aggressive prevention measures before the recent massive spill that poured toxic sludge into the Dan River?
Those are questions a federal grand jury will consider when it convenes in Raleigh. It’s also expected to examine any ties between Duke and staffers at the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The U.S. Attorney’s Office ordered DENR to hand over any correspondence and reports produced since 2010 relating to “discharges or seepages from any coal ash pond” as well as those specifically related to the Dan River accident. Duke has pledged to cooperate.
It’s not just Duke’s operations that bear scrutiny but also whether DENR’s “customer oriented” oversight under the McCrory administration has tipped too far toward appeasing corporate interests at the expense of environmental protection. The spill and DENR’s initial release of inaccurate information about downstream contamination levels haven’t inspired trust that public health and citizen safety are being put first.
From the Dan River spill and previous problems elsewhere, it’s obvious that unlined coal ash ponds pose environmental risks and need to be cleaned up. That most likely will mean removing the ash from unlined lagoons — especially those near waterways, like the Dan River plant and Rowan County’s Buck Steam Station — and storing it at less vulnerable sites. That won’t be cheap. While detailed costs won’t be known until there’s a firm plan, a Duke spokesman put the bill for closing its ash ponds at $4.5 billion-$5.5 billion, spread over a decade or more.
Duke and other utilities have dithered around for years on the coal ash lagoon problem, with state regulators unwilling or unable to press for longterm solutions. Now, a catastrophic spill and a Superior Court judge’s order that Duke take “immediate” action have forced the issue. It’s no surprise that the utility would seek to minimize its own costs. But Duke — which made $2.7 billion in profits last year — is hardly a charity case. Its customers shouldn’t be the ones on the hook if ongoing reviews show that Duke or state regulators were remiss in not addressing known problems sooner.