There are few things on Earth more disgusting and harmful to the environment than coal ash — the toxic stew left over after coal is burned to make electricity. For generations, utility companies have just let the stuff accumulate in massive piles next door to their generating facilities, often in unlined pits where rainwater turns it into a lethal stew. That water is often then allowed to leach into the surrounding environment, polluting the rivers, streams, and aquifers for miles around.
Excavate & Relocate
A week ago, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality reached a momentous decision. It ordered Duke Energy to dig up all remaining coal ash ponds in the state and transfer the contents to lined landfills, according to a report by WRAL News.
Secretary of Environmental Quality Michael Regan said his staff reached the conclusion that digging up and removing the ash was the only option to protect public health and the environment after a scientific review of Duke’s proposals for the sites and meeting with affected communities.
“Some of these ash ponds are over 200 acres, and some of these plumes are over 300 feet deep — these contamination plumes. So, what we did is we modeled it out. We looked at the science and we had to make a determination of what’s most protective of North Carolinians and our environment. We know for sure we have the science and the law to support our decision,” Regan said.
It’s Too Expensive!
Duke Energy, of course, was less than pleased by the DEQ decision, claiming all the affected sites were previously rated as low-risk by the state (at a time when the state was firmly in the hands of rabid “corporations can do no wrong” Republicans). It says the “science and engineering support a variety of closure methods [other than excavation] that all protect public health and the environment.”
“We are making strong progress to permanently close every ash basin in North Carolina in ways that fully protect people and the environment, while keeping costs down as much as possible for our customers,” company officials said in a statement. Excavating could take decades and add up to $5 billion to the current estimated $5.6 billion cost of coal ash cleanup, the company says.
Who Should Pay?
Ah, now we get to the heart of the matter — money. Duke Energy wants its customers to pay for the cleanup. Last year (before the political landscape shifted in North Carolina), the North Carolina Utilities Commission allowed Duke Energy to charge the cost of cleaning up two of its generating stations to customers.
But now the political wheel has turned. Democratic governor Roy Cooper said in a recent statement, “We’ve seen the damage this pollution can do, including the families who had to live for years on bottled water until we were able to get them connected to permanent water solutions. Now, the cleanup of remaining coal ash needs to move ahead efficiently and effectively.”
“The debate about how to deal with Duke Energy’s coal ash mess should be over,” Dave Rogers, of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement. “Duke owes it to our communities to clean up its toxic mess and not try to force customers to foot the bill for it.”
New Legislation Filed
Democrats now control the North Carolina House of Representatives and have filed proposed legislation that would block Duke Energy from forcing its customers to pay coal ash excavation costs, according to the Charlotte Observer. A similar bill will face an uphill battle in the state’s Republican controlled Senate, however. The issue of who pays is far from settled and will probably wind up in court.
Duke’s position is standard operating procedure for businesses in America — privatize the profits and socialize the costs. The fossil fuel companies have been playing this “heads we win, tails you lose” game for generations and have it down to a science. Perhaps Duke Energy customers will weigh in on the issue once they find out how much the clean up costs will add to their monthly utility bills. Tens of thousands of angry customers could well be the decisive factor in this battle.