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Clean Coal My Foot: Another Coal Related Spill In North Carolina [Updated]

With fallout from the West Virginia chemical spill into the Elk River still ongoing, a new coal related spill in North Carolina calls new attention to the clean coal conundrum. The spill originated from a stormwater drain connected to a Duke Energy coal fly ash impoundment along the Dan River in Eden and was reported on February 3.

Here’s a snippet of a report from the Charlotte Observer:

Duke Energy said Monday that 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water were released from a pond at its retired power plant in Eden into the Dan River, and were still flowing.

Duke said a 48-inch stormwater pipe beneath the unlined ash pond broke Sunday afternoon. Water and ash from the 27-acre pond drained into the pipe.

North Carolina coal ash spill.

Coal by Handvoll (wikimedia commons)

[Update 1: As of this writing (February 7), coal ash slurry is still spilling into the Dan River with no end in sight.]

[Update 2: Later on February 7 the Charlotte Observer reports that the spill has been redirected into the coal ash disposal site]

Coal Ash Disposal And Clean Coal

The spill shines an unwelcome spotlight on the whole issue of the disposal of coal fly ash (the ash left over after coal is burned in power plants) as well as other forms of coal ash. Current practice is to store it as a slurry in open air lagoons, of which there are hundreds throughout the US.


The timing of the Dan River spill is particularly awkward. In 2010, a few months after a gigantic coal ash impoundment in Tennessee broke its dikes and spilled 1.1 billion (yes, billion) gallons of slurry into the Emory River, the US EPA proposed new rules for fly ash disposal.

After a long wait and several lawsuits, late last month EPA agreed to implement the new rules by the end of this year.

As for the West Virginia chemical spill, the substance involved was Crude MCHM, a foaming agent used to prep raw coal for use. The spill was reported on January 9 affecting the water supply for nine counties with a population of 300,000, many of whom, according to a letter to FEMA from West Virginia Earl Ray Tomblin, are still afraid to drink their tapwater.

Also for the record, Duke Energy has been moving aggressively into wind power (including the showcase Notrees wind farm) and other forms of renewable energy, though its track record on solar has been muddied recently by a controversy over rates.

For local news on the Dan River coal ash spill, check out the Charlotte Observer or Coal Ash Chronicles (@Coal-Ash).

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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