CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A Charlotte-based energy supplier blamed a broken storm water pipe at a shuttered power plant for spilling up to 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River near the Virginia border.
Duke Energy Corp. said that coal ash, a waste product created by burning coal to generate electricity, spilled into the river from a 27-acre ash pond at the Dan River Steam Station about 30 miles north of Greensboro. The plant has been inactive since 2012, but the site was never cleaned up. The company said that a 48-inch pipe underneath the ash pond broke sometime Sunday afternoon.
The spill was enough to fill up to 32 Olympic-size swimming pools, Duke Energy said in a statement. The company also said that up to 27 million gallons of water from the basin reached the river, but said that municipal water supplies downstream from the spill remained unaffected.
However, the state’s environmental authorities said that the spill’s effects on the water supply remain uncertain.
“While it is early in the investigation and state officials do not yet know of any possible impacts to water quality, staff members have been notifying downstream communities with drinking water intakes,” the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported.
According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, coal ash, the post-combustion waste of power plants that generate electricity by burning coal, is a “highly concentrated toxic stew of heavy metals, from arsenic, boron, and chromium to lead, mercury, selenium, and zinc” that can have devastating effects on human health.
Sunday’s coal ash spill isn’t the first time Duke Energy has fallen in the spotlight for contaminating the environment. In September, Water Alliance and other environmental groups sued Duke Energy in a North Carolina federal court, alleging that the company dumped untreated contaminated water from coal ash storage pits into a lake near its L.V. Sutton Steam Electric Plant.
Environmental watchdogs also say that Duke Energy is allowing coal ash and other pollutants to leach into groundwater, directly threatening the well water and municipal water supplies.
North Carolina’s environmental department is also suing Duke Energy and subsidiary companies for allegedly violating the state’s water-quality laws at 12 of its current and inactive coal-fired power plants. Environmental officials say that the company is allowing toxic wastewater to seep into the groundwater at the plant sites.
In July, Duke Energy agreed to pay the state nearly $100,000 to clean up water contamination from coal ash waste at two other plant locations.