Residents in the city of Eden, North Carolina are currently in danger of having their drinking water destroyed thanks to Duke Energy. The coal giant has reported a coal ash spill in the Dan River with as much as 82,000 tons of the toxic pollutant released into the waterway.
According to EcoWatch, it took an astounding 24 hours after the accident occurred for Duke to issue a press release to inform the public about the chemicals that were very quickly making their way down river. It is currently estimated that 22 million gallons of coal ash are now flowing along the river. The spill has already been declared the third largest in U.S. history.
This was not an unavoidable catastrophe.
Duke was warned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in September 2009 that the coal ash storage site was falling apart, and the EPA even noted several instances of coal ash sludge already leaking from corroded pipes. The EPA report also noted that portions of the dam that were supposed to be keeping the coal ash in its retention pond were crumbling.
The coal ash spill is the second major environmental chemical spill in less than a month, following the West Virginia chemical spill in early January.
Duke Energy has been a major player in American politics in terms of campaign contributions, and typically spends evenly between Democrats and Republicans, a move that ensures preferential treatment regardless of which party is in power. Former CEO Jim Rogers was also a top fundraiser for Barack Obama, giving him more than $1 million for his 2012 re-election campaign, and paying $10 million for the Democratic Party’s 2012 convention in North Carolina.
They are also no strangers to environmental destruction. The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation filed a lawsuit against Duke last year, claiming that the company had violated the Clean Water Act by allowing toxic coal ash chemicals to leak into the Mountain Island Lake in North Carolina. The company has also been listed as the 46th largest polluter in America.
Coal ash, also known as “fly ash” or “bottom ash,” is loaded with carcinogenic and otherwise toxic chemicals including hexavalent chromium, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. In spite of this, the EPA has actually promoted the use of coal ash in consumer products, such as cement and the de-icing of roadways in the wintertime.
For years, the EPA and the federal government have remained virtually silent on the issue of coal ash (other than promoting it), even in the wake of a series of town hall meetings that called for some type of safety standards to be put in place.
However, they will no longer have the option to remain silent. Compelled by a recent court decision that ruled against EPA's foot-dragging, the agency now has until December to make a final decision on whether or not they will regulate coal ash as hazardous waste.
The science is in, and coal ash ponds are contaminating groundwater all over America, even when the ponds don’t rupture or leak.
If the administration chooses to not act on the issue, incidents like the one in North Carolina – and the massive coal ash spill by the Tennessee Valley Authority several years ago – will be commonplace in America, even more so than they already have become.
**Update** Here are some photos of the spill from Greenpeace. Photo credits: Jason E. Miczek.