Plenty of blame to go around over coal ash issue

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 26, 2015

It’s been over a year since coal ash from a Duke Energy plant was found to be leaking into the Dan River, but the coal-ash issue isn’t going away.

After the Dan River spill, the focus on the environmental and health concerns posed by coal ash came to the forefront across the state and country. State legislators, forced to deal with a reality they couldn’t ignore, took action and implemented plans to assess, and in cases where contamination is found, clean up Duke’s coal ash ponds across the state — though the whole process could take years.

Then Tuesday came, and the news that residents near Duke’s Buck Steam Station, which has three coal ash ponds, had received letters from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources telling them not to drink their well water because testing had found unsafe levels of contamination.

People are angry, and many directly blame Duke Energy for this huge problem, which is certainly understandable. But at some point we all need to look in the mirror and take responsibility.

After all, coal ash is simply a byproduct of our society’s endless thirst for energy. The vast majority of people go about their daily lives never thinking about where their energy comes from, how its produced and the potential consequences.

Each time we flip a light switch, turn on the TV or plug in our cellphone to charge, we expect the lights to come on, images on the TV to appear and that little lightning bolt symbol to show up on our phones. And when we do lose power for those relatively short periods, we aren’t happy about it.

Meanwhile, energy companies like Duke, whose main purpose is to make money for their shareholders, have grown tremendously large and powerful — the man who runs the state used to help run Duke Energy. And that is not a coincidence.

Coal accounts for a little under 40 percent of U.S. energy production — more than any other source.

Is it really a wonder that nothing was done about all that coal ash building up until it was too late? The energy companies were simply giving us what we all said, loud and clear, that we wanted. And as long as only a small number of people voiced concerns about the pending disaster, people running the show didn’t have to worry about doing anything about it.

When there’s money, in this case billions of dollars, to be made, people have a tendency look the other way.

But back to the scene Tuesday in Dukeville after residents received those letters.

The TV cameras rolled as a nice woman sat behind her kitchen table telling her story. The one-gallon water jugs and plastic water bottles strategically placed in the background — and it doesn’t take much research to find out the controversy over bottled water is just as big as the one over coal ash.

The woman said she thought things were fine until she got the letter — Duke had told her so. But other Dukeville residents had stopped drinking their well water last year after concerns were raised following the Dan River spill.

The environmentalists, who probably get tired of asking themselves why nobody will listen until after its too late, were on hand. Duke, following standard protocol, issued a statement saying there is nothing to worry about.

Meanwhile, the three coal ash ponds near Duke’s plant, which since 2011 has used natural gas to produce electricity, remain. And, for my money, the coal ash isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.