Thursday, March 6, 2014

A follow up on the Dan River Ash Spill

The site in North Carolina where an accident at a coal ash pond spilled 
tons of coal ash and contaminated waste water into the Dan River in North Carolina
Credit: The Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability (Source)

Last Friday, the Duke Energy Dan River facility in Eden, North Carolina, which was the site of a 39,000 ton coal ash spill in February, was finally cited with two notices of violations, one for failing to obtain a storm-water permit and other for violations "of water quality standards, rules and permit conditions in associated with its management of the coal ash pond and the discharge of a portion of its contents to the Dan River".  I just noticed that the NC DENR has posted a timeline of events for the spill. It is several pages long but provides lots of details and is worth reading. 

A New York Times article Ash Spill Shows How Watchdog Was Defanged observes that last June, State Governor Pat McCrory had a new official in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR) tell the departmental state employees that 'they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible. Big changes are coming, the official said, according to three people in the meeting, two of whom took notes. “If you don’t like change, you’ll be gone.”' The article also reports that the formerly aggressive enforcement agency is now led by a secretary who has suggested that oil is a renewable resource and an assistant secretary who, as a state lawmaker, drew a bull’s-eye on a window in his office framing the environmental agency’s headquarters.

As a result of the uproar following the Dan River spill, federal prosecutors have now begun a criminal investigation into the spill and the relations between Duke and regulators at the environmental agency. For example, last year the environmental department's new leadership struck a deal with Duke energy over coal ash pond pollution which included only a $99,111 fine and no order to remove the ash from the leaky, unlined storage ponds. The NC DENR only took action against Duke because environmental groups filed notice that they intended to sue under the auspices of the federal Clean Water Act, which allows citizen groups to sue polluters if state regulators fail to enforce compliance. Also according to the law, state agencies are allowed to take over such lawsuits, and the NC DENR used this power to intervene, blocking the lawsuits and striking what appears to be a deal that heavily favored Duke Energy. It is also worth noting that Gov. McCrory worked at Duke Energy for 28 years and is a former mayor of Charlotte, where the company is based.

The NYT reports that "Last year, the environment agency’s budget for water pollution programs was cut by 10.2 percent, a bipartisan commission that approves regulations was reorganized to include only Republican appointees, and the governor vastly expanded the number of agency employees exempt from civil service protections, to 179 from 24." In addition says that "Despite deep cuts from the state budget, the agency’s new leadership turned back $582,000 in grants from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to monitor wetlands and study the impact of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas on waterways.

It took until February 28th, 26 days after the spill, for the NC DENR to issue formal notices of violation to Duke Energy in connection with the spill. The same day, five other Duke Energy facilities were also issued notices of violation for failure to obtain storm-water permits ...
Picture from NCDENR Flickr (source)  - these are all from long after the original spill

Each of the storm-water permit violations basically state that the facility has 30 days to file an application for a permit, comply with the standards of the permit, explaining why they failed to apply for one previously, and submitting the permit application along with the $860 fee. Failure to do so could potentially result in a maximum of fine of $25,000 per day per plant for each of the six plants. The letter about the Dan River spill does not mention any details about possible penalties or fines.

These actions are the result of weeks of public outrage about the spill, which left coal ash waste for 70 miles downstream of the breach. The NC DENR has apparently tried for years to get Duke Energy, a $50 billion company, to get its fourteen North Carolina plants into compliance with environmental laws but failed. According to the New York Times article, internal emails and other records from the agency, which were turned over to environmental activists as part of the legal discovery process last year, showed that regulators knew about the six Duke plants without permits as long ago as 2009. This has lead federal prosecutors to subpoena current and former NC DENR employees, as well as Duke officials, to appear before a grand jury on March 18th.

The NC DENR has just posted a March 5th letter requesting plans and camera inspections of pipes at all of Dukes facilities. Yes, the letter really says requesting

The letter also states that Duke has been provided "with a document showing the results of recent visual inspections by DEMLR staff at the 14 coal combustion (or former coal combustion) plant sites focused on the condition and material makeup of decant/spillway structures. ... These inspections took place between February 20, 2014 and March 1, 2014. During the inspection process, it was noted that eight of the thirty three jurisdictional coal ash ponds were served by decant structures with CMP components, one of which was discovered by DEMLR staff on March 1, 2014 to have an active leak. Sixteen of the thirty three jurisdictional coal ash ponds were served by decant structures made of formed, cast and pipe configured concrete. The remainder of the coal ash ponds, excluding those at the Dan River plant, either had no decant structure or the decant structure was made of other materials. Determination of decant structure material could not be made at the Dan River plant due to the high level of the river. Most all decant structures appeared to have been in service for many years if not decades."

CMP simply means corrugated metal pipe, which, surprise!, rusts over time.

A decant, or decanting structure, in this context is typically a tower that is incorporated into the dam surrounding a coal ash (or tailings) pond into which water flows through a series of perforations or slotted pipes. The water is collected and then pumped back into the holding pond. The idea is to prevent the buildup of pressure against the dam and prevent seepage.

North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Dan River Spill

New York Times 2/28/14 Ash Spill Shows How Watchdog Was Defanged

New York Times 4/3/14 Utility Cited for Violating Pollution Law in North Carolina

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