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Why so slow to fix coal ash

For decades the old Carolina Power & Light Co. operated a coal-fired plant on the Cape Fear River. … The plant is now fueled by natural gas.

During Hurricane Florence and its torrential rains, dams breached between a coal ash containment compound — reported to contain 900,000 cubic yards of the toxic sludge — and the adjoining manmade Sutton Lake. The swollen Cape Fear River, in turn, spilled into Sutton Lake.

The Duke Energy people keep saying there’s nothing to worry about. … Folks from Cape Fear River Watch and other environmental groups, who have had people bobbing about in boats nearby, say there’s plenty to worry about.

Threats to Wilmington’s water supply seem remote, since the intakes are miles upriver. But you never know.

Anyway, it’s a little late now, but the question remains: Why wasn’t this potential threat mitigated long before now? Hurricanes, after all, are nothing new along the Cape Fear coast, although they do seem to be dumping a whole lot more rain than they used to, lately creeping through the area instead of racing.

Some have noted the parallels between Florence and 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, which reached Category 4 strength, lost much of its steam before landfall here, then delivered a Category 4 load of floodwaters to woebegone areas farther inland.

Storing coal ash in low-lying areas and close to a river that obviously can flood doesn’t sound like a wise strategy. Why hasn’t Duke (which absorbed the old CP&L/Progress Energy in 2012) been doing more to clear out that coal-ash pit? And why hasn’t the state of North Carolina been prodding it to do so?

The state, as you might know, has a history of rather chummy relations with Duke Energy. Back in 2014, 39,000 tons of coal ash from another Duke retaining pond washed into the Dan River, fouling western rivers and streams. Duke was hit with $102 million in federal fines and restitution money — but much of that was remitted under former Gov. Pat McCrory, a former longtime Duke Energy employee.

McCrory also effectively blocked legislation to require Duke to pay for a cleanup directly out of shareholder profits rather than passing the bill along to its customers.

The utility was supposed to be moving the Sutton Plant coal ash to a landfill and apparently has been doing so with deliberate speed, but some of the sludge — enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, by some reports — washed loose.

Duke Energy is the nation’s second-largest electric utility, based on market value. The best we can tell, the company has done a remarkable job of restoring power to its customers. In that regard, the utility obviously saw what was coming and was prepared. Duke also should have seen such a spill coming and prepared — and well before now.

— StarNews of Wilmington

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