Summer over; coal ash is not

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 27, 2016

By Will Scott

Yadkin Riverkeeper

Summer has come to a close on High Rock Lake but the water is still full of fishermen, boaters and swimmers enjoying the warm weather. But there’s a problem.

Duke Energy’s leaking, unlined coal ash pits sit on the banks of the Yadkin River just upstream of High Rock Lake, at the site of a defunct coal plant known as the Buck Steam Station. These coal ash pits are full of cancer-causing pollutants like arsenic and hexavalent chromium. Every day, over 70,000 gallons of contaminated wastewater seeps out of the unlined pits that are supposed to keep Duke’s coal ash contained.

And we are constantly finding out that the situation is worse than we feared. Just last week, arsenic was discovered in the Yadkin River itself at levels four times higher than the legal limit, right next to Duke Energy’s coal ash dam. That means that arsenic is present in the Yadkin River at levels that are known to be dangerous to human health. Nearby seepage at the Buck site contains even higher levels of arsenic.

Tellingly, Duke Energy has not denied that this arsenic is coming from its coal ash pits. Instead, Duke Energy’s response is that there is an imaginary “zone” in which it is allowed to pollute the Yadkin River as much as it likes. Duke Energy is essentially asking the public to ignore these hazardous arsenic levels, and just let the arsenic spread far and wide into the Yadkin River and High Rock Lake. But Duke’s permit and common sense tell us that there’s no such authorization to dump hazardous levels of arsenic into the river.

This isn’t the first time that Duke Energy has engaged in risky practices or broken the law. Duke Energy pleaded guilty 18 times for nine Clean Water Act crimes at coal ash pits across North Carolina and at its Dan River site, where its actions led to the Dan River coal ash catastrophe. Duke Energy is currently on parole. Because of Duke Energy’s mismanagement of coal ash and the resulting risks of pollution and spills, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund recently pulled its investments out of the company.

Duke Energy has had every reason and opportunity to clean up its Buck site. Last year, while residents living near Duke’s Buck coal ash pits were told that their water wasn’t safe to drink, Duke Energy was making nearly $3 billion in profits. Duke has had 90 years to resolve its coal ash issues at Buck, and the surrounding community has been plagued by Duke Energy’s coal operations for just as long. It’s time for Duke Energy to stop spending all of its time and money resisting cleanup, and start doing the right thing.

There’s only one proven solution to Duke Energy’s coal ash problems at Buck, and that’s to remove the ash from its leaking, unlined pits. The ash can be recycled into concrete. It can be stored in lined, dry storage. But it cannot be covered up and left to leak into the Yadkin River and surrounding communities forever, which is what Duke Energy has proposed.

Will Scott of Winston- Salem is the Yadkin Riverkeeper.