Coal Ash News and Media
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June 24, 2015
TALLAHASSEE – In a landmark legal settlement reached today with three conservation groups, Gulf Power Company has agreed to take steps to protect North Florida’s famed Apalachicola River from toxic coal ash waste that is stockpiled at the company’s 62-year-old Scholz Generating Plant near Sneads, Florida.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of coal ash, which contains an array of toxic heavy metals like arsenic and lead, currently sits in leaking, unlined waste lagoons atop a bluff overlooking the river. After water samples taken by Waterkeeper Alliance and Apalachicola Riverkeeper indicated pollutants were leaking from the lagoons into the river, Earthjustice sued Gulf Power under the federal Clean Water Act on behalf of the Waterkeeper groups, who were joined by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. In the 2014 suit, the groups raised concerns that the earthen berms surrounding the coal ash could suddenly give way and cause a massive coal ash spill, devastating the entire scenic river and its delicate estuary downstream.
On May 14, 2015, Duke Energy pled guilty to 9 criminal misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act. The charges stemmed from a widened investigation, after the Dan River disaster, that found violations at Duke-owned facilities in Buncombe, Chatham, Wayne and Gaston Counties in North Carolina. Duke negotiated a plea bargain that included $68 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation projects. Duke’s fine, totaling over $102 million, is the largest criminal fine at the federal level in NC history. In addition to this historic fine, Duke will also be on probation for five years and will report its coal ash compliance in five states to federal parole officers.
Duke Energy is under a lot of pressure these days. Coal ash has become a serious financial and public relations liability for the corporation, yet so far, the nation’s largest utility isn’t planning to adequately clean up its mess across the Southeast. The impacts of coal ash on communities and waterways continue, and the price of business as usual is increasing – but it doesn’t seem to be enough so far to drive necessary action.
Lisa Evans is an attorney specializing in hazardous waste law. Ms. Evans has been active in hazardous waste litigation and advocacy for over 25 years. Since 2006, she has been a senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice. Lisa’s blog was originally posted here.
You have to acknowledge the tenacity of Rep. David McKinley (R, WV). Just three months (and only 42 working days) after EPA signed its first-ever coal ash rule, McKinley has introduced a new coal ash bill that guts the new EPA rule and protects the polluters who finance his campaigns.
During a hearing last week on McKinley’s bill, it became clear that, though the EPA’s final coal ash rule already gave much away to the utilities, the House majority won’t abide by any reasonable rules governing toxic ash disposal. The result is an exceedingly dangerous bill that will permanently give polluters a free pass to dump the second largest industrial waste stream in the nation without any accountability to the communities they are fouling.
So how does the new bill eliminate, weaken and/or delay coal ash requirements critical to protecting public health and safety?
Let us count the ways:
Late Friday afternoon, after many had gone home for the weekend, news broke that The Department of Justice filed federal charges in all three of NC’s federal district courts against Duke Energy for violations of the Clean Water Act. Duke is charged with 9 misdemeanor violations for polluting four of NC’s rivers. In order to settle the charges, Duke Energy’s plea bargain includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation projects – totaling over $102 million, which already garnered widespread media coverage after Duke’s announcement Feb. 18, 2015 in a financial disclosure statement. No individuals will be charged in connection to the violations. The deal will ultimately need the approval of a federal judge.
The federal grand jury probe has been ongoing since last February when Duke dumped nearly 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina. That’s a total of 140,000 tons of toxic waste and wastewater combined into the sensitive eco-system of the Dan River. Four of the federal misdemeanor charges are for the Dan River ash disaster. Additional charges accuse Duke Energy of illegally draining coal ash and wastewater at three other power plants: the Catawba River from the Riverbend power plant just west of Charlotte; the Neuse River from the H.F. Lee plant; the French Broad River from the Asheville plant. The charges include failure of Duke officials to maintain treatment system equipment at the Dan River plant and the Cape Fear power plant in Chatham County.
In a plea deal to match other major environmental disaster plea deals, Duke Energy appears to be expecting fines around $100 million to resolve, in part, the federal criminal investigation initiated after the massive Dan River coal ash disaster in 2014. Official announcements are pending in the days to come about the criminal charges, but the $100 million fines were discovered in federal disclosure filings and a Duke press release on Feb. 18 and were reported by the Charlotte Observer. The $100 million that Duke Energy disclosed in its earning report as “probable financial exposure” is expected to go to fines, community-service, and mitigation projects.
It has been just one year since a Duke Energy facility had an impoundment failure, dumping up to 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River. The company already reported spending $20 million to clean up the Dan River site itself, although 90% of the ash still remains in the river. In addition to the federal criminal probe on this disaster, Duke Energy is being sued by multiple organizations including SACE for its ongoing coal ash pollution at the Dan River site. This case has yet to be settled or resolved. A suite of other conservation groups and Riverkeepers represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center have also taken Duke Energy to court to resolve coal ash contamination problems at its 13 other leaky impoundments. Yesterday’s financial disclosure does nothing to resolve these cases or indicate financial culpability to settle them independently.
For Immediate Release: Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015
Mitch Reid, Program Director
Alabama Rivers Alliance
In a presentation to the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, Alabama Rivers Alliance will outline the opportunity to fix the problem and protect rivers and drinking water
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A number of coal ash waste sites in Alabama are operating under expired permits that have been extended for years without being updated, according to state records. And with new national safeguards for coal ash disposal poised to be finalized this month, the Alabama Rivers Alliance is calling on Alabama’s Environmental Management Commission to bring these facilities up to date in ways that truly protect drinking water and public health.
“With as many toxic chemicals as we know there are in coal ash, and with so many disposal sites sitting next to rivers that provide Alabama families and communities with drinking water, we can’t let this pollution go unaccounted for any longer,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance. “There’s far too much at risk.”
One year ago today, Duke Energy dumped nearly 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina. That’s a total of 140,000 tons of toxic waste and wastewater combined into the sensitive eco-system of the Dan River. By the end of two weeks, a dark grey plume of this toxic by-product of coal-fired power had traveled 70 miles downstream, and where it settled on the riverbed. The spill and its aftermath
Enough coal ash poured into the Dan River to fill 20 to 32 Olympic-sized swimming pools with toxic waste. Source: Appalachian Voicesmade coal ash a national news story throughout 2014. The outrage of community members and advocates across the state, combined with the media attention to the environmental disaster eventually exposed cozy relationships between Duke and the state agencies that were supposed to be protecting the public and NC’s waterways. Today, communities across the state are left with the foreboding possibility that a similar disaster could unfold at one or all of Duke’s 14 leaking sites.
Last month, EPA finally released its long-awaited rules on coal ash. EPA was prompted by an even bigger coal ash disaster in Kingston, TN that occurred six years ago. Despite the clear risks, the agency declined to regulate the toxic substance as “hazardous” and offered only a weak set of rules that leave accountability to the utilities themselves, state environmental agencies, and citizen suits. Already, Congress is trying to dismantle even this inadequate rule. In the absence of strong, federal safeguards, there are 3 important steps that NC communities, state agencies, the legislature, and Duke Energy can take to ensure that a coal ash disaster won’t happen in NC again.
Asheville, N.C. – Today www.SoutheastCoalAsh.org and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) unveiled a new tool to help concerned citizens, activists, policymakers, and reporters better understand the potential hazards of toxic coal ash waste throughout our region.
The Create-Your-Own Coal Ash Report feature on our interactive website, www.SoutheastCoalAsh.org, analyzes detailed data from more than 450 coal ash storage ponds (impoundments) across the region to generate custom reports based on the coal plants, states, and/or utilities that users select. You can visit the report portal page to generate a custom report at http://www.CoalAshReport.org.
Our 9-state region is extremely vulnerable to pollution and catastrophic dam failures from coal ash impoundments because it is home to 40% of the nation’s coal ash impoundments and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates a disproportionate number of those as posing serious threats to nearby communities and infrastructure. The report comes as EPA faces a court-ordered December 19 deadline to finalize rules for coal ash, which is currently less regulated than household garbage despite its toxic load of lead, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium.
“We are still waiting on federal rules to address this completely unregulated waste stream which continues to pose serious threats to our communities and waterways,” says Ulla Reeves, High Risk Energy Program Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Increasing public understanding, awareness, and access to information about coal ash issues in our backyards is one of the ways we will eventually clean up these dangerous dumpsites and prevent the next devastating coal ash spill.”
These custom reports offer another way for the public to learn more and share information about dangerous coal ash impoundments that threaten water quality and public health. This information was made publicly available for the first time on the www.SoutheastCoalAsh.org website in December 2012 and both the website and this new report-generating tool are regularly updated with the latest impoundment-specific coal ash data.
In the days and weeks after the Dan River disaster, North Carolina legislators made bold promises to protect the public from dangerous and polluting coal ash sites. Since May there’s been several stops and starts on coal ash legislation, and for a time it looked like the General Assembly would fail to pass any legislation.
Instead, the General Assembly passed a bill last night that falls far short of the protections North Carolinians desperately need. In the early days of this legislative session, we were hopeful that North Carolina lawmakers were going to put forth a strong bill to force Duke Energy to clean up all of its polluting sites.
Unfortunately, the bill they passed actually undermines current groundwater protection laws, fails to clean up 10 of North Carolina’s dangerous and polluting coal ash impoundments and lets Duke off the hook for the harm their dumpsites are causing communities and waterways statewide. As a News & Observer recent Editorial aptly stated, Senate Bill 729 “proposes to solve the coal ash problem by declaring it not a problem. Or, at least not an urgent problem.”
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9/15/2010- 60 Minutes Video: 130 Million Tons of Waste