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Agreement over Massive Coal Ash Spill Ignores Lingering Dangers

Green groups say Duke Energy should be forced to clean up 100 million tons of coal ash still lining state's waterways

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Staff from the U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service take core samples following the spill of coal ash into the Dan River. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)In an agreement signed on Monday, Duke Energy has said it will pay for all "reasonable" costs associated with the clean-up of the more than 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash spilled into North Carolina's Dan River earlier this year.

Though some are hailing the agreement as a milestone in a protracted battle with the utility company, many said the deal lets Duke off the hook too easily by not demanding more aggressive action over the 100 million tons of coal ash that continue to sit in other facilities along the state's essential waterways.

In an op-ed published a day before the agreement was signed, Jim Warren, executive director of North Carolina-based climate justice group NC WARN, writes, "One of the fundamental questions is who will pay to clean up the dozens of coal ash dumps."

The signed agreement—which was made between Duke and both federal and state agencies —specifically demands redress for the damages to the "natural resources impacted by the coal ash released by the company's retired Dan River coal-fired power plant in Eden, N.C., on Feb. 2, 2014."

The strengths of the agreement—including that it places no cap on the amount the company might be required to spend and does not bar the state from filing suit if the company does not uphold its commitments—were lauded by state officials.

“This is another important step in our efforts to hold Duke Energy accountable for their ash spill and to return the Dan River, as closely as possible, to the condition it was in before the ash spill,” said John Skvarla of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Despite this, little progress has been made on the problem of Duke's remaining 33 coal ash dumps across 14 sites containing a total of more than 100 million tons of ash.

Environmentalists have long called for the state to demand that Duke move all of their ash into lined landfills and set a date for the utility to close all the coal ash sites. However, Duke has indicated that in the event of such a push, utility customers would be the ones to shoulder those costs.

As AP reports:

Duke has agreed to remove all of its remaining ash at the Eden plant and three other sites, but wants to consider options for its other facilities that could include leaving the ash where it is, capped with plastic sheeting and a layer of soil. Duke has warned lawmakers it could cost as much as $10 billion if it is forced to remove its ash at all 14 sites in North Carolina, with the company's electricity customers footing most of the bill.

"If you went to a garage for a motor oil change and were told the bill would be boosted by 20 percent because of a mechanic’s spill out back, you’d go elsewhere," Warren writes. "If Duke succeeds in adding up to 20 percent to your electricity bill to clean up its leaking toxic sludge dumps, you won’t have a choice because Duke Energy is a monopoly."

A bill backed by Republican governor Pat McCrory, which currently making its way through the North Carolina legislature, is said to do little but require Duke to monitor the sites for groundwater contamination. According to D.J. Gerken, a managing attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the "real function" of the legislation "is to preempt active litigation for known violations for which there is a confirmed remedy."

Calling for a "clear framework" for the clean-up of all of Duke's coal ash sites, Warren continues: "The General Assembly cannot disregard its responsibility to the people of North Carolina. [...] Safe and effective cleanup will be complicated, but it must be pursued promptly and carefully."

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