Duke Energy, the huge power company that spilled tons of toxic waste into a North Carolina river is being looked into by federal investigators. Environmental sleuths from the federal Environmental Protection Agency said that Duke deliberately released wastewater last week from a site that is just upriver from Raleigh, the state capital. State environmental regulators are calling the planned release probably “illegal.”
Workers at two ash ponds at the head of Cape Fear River were caught in aerial photographs with pumps and hoses that appear to be moving wastewater into a canal which flows directly into the river. A spokesman for North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources said that the pumps and hoses were also noticed last week by inspectors on a site visit.
A spokesman for Duke said the pumping was only meant to lower the level of water in the pond. Power company holding ponds contain a mixture of coal ash laced with toxic heavy metals. The spokesman went on to say that it was “routine maintenance” and is allowable under the antipollution permit in place.
A large coal ash leak by Duke into the Dan River layered 70 miles of river bottom in February. A toxic skin formed on the bottom of the river and violated pollution laws at the Duke plant in Eden, North Carolina. Five other sites containing the poisonous mixture were also cited.
February’s spill into the Dan River is the third-largest disaster of its kind and revealed the flaws in Duke’s ash storage capabilities and inefficiencies. The spill also revealed what appears to be a cozy relationship between Duke officials and state regulators.
Southern Environmental Law Center obtained internal emails between state regulators and Duke Energy officials which show a very close relationship at a time when environmental activist groups are battling the company over pollution from its coal ash ponds.
Duke Energy has said it will move its coal ash storage ponds to more secure locations which will be further away from public waterways. Duke also claims it will speed-up the drainage from ash ponds. Skeptics are saying that Duke is just kicking the can down the street and it will be business-as-usual once the public’s attention is diverted.
The ponds at Duke Energy’s Cape Fear River plant near Moncure, North Carolina, have permits for vertical pipes. The upright pipes allow for water drainage from the top of the storage ponds which is cleaner than the water at deeper depths because of toxic heavy metals settling. Pumping from deeper levels in the pond raises the risk of pollution.
Environmentalists are saying that one possible motive for Duke Energy to pump water from its ponds is money. If Duke can lower the water depth in the ponds, then it has reduced the amount of water requiring treatment resulting in lower costs.
If Duke is pumping water from the pond, their actions also provide a way for getting rid of water without the state regulators or the public knowing about it. If regulators don’t know, then there is no limit on how much water Duke can remove from the coal ash pond.
Duke’s apparent pumping of the ponds comes at a time when company officials and state regulators have been called to appear before a grand jury in Raleigh. The grand jury, which is investigating the Dan River spill, has subpoenaed individuals to talk about what they knew about the spill and when they knew it.
Duke Energy spokesman, Jeff Brooks, claims the discharge was permissible and that state regulators had been notified. When pressed by reporters, Brooks could not specify when the state regulators had been told of the pond pumping. Spokesman for state regulators contradicted what Brooks said.
Peter Harrison, an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance, disputed Duke Energy’s explanation. Calling Duke’s actions which they hid under the guise of “maintenance,” Harrison says is ludicrous and could be a federal crime.
Editorial by Jerry Nelson