At 4:03 p.m. on Monday February 3, Duke Energy officially notified the public that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash leaked from a pond at a retired power plant and were flowing into the Dan River.  To put that in perspective, according to Duke’s press release, “This volume of ash would fill between 20 and 32 Olympic-size swimming pools.”  And that doesn’t include the 24-27 million-gallons of water also spilled.

The leaking began sometime on Sunday February 2 (the day before the official notification) and was the result of a broken stormwater pipe located underneath the ash basin at the plant.  The 27 acre primary basin was not filled to capacity because the plant has been out of commission since 2012.  Still, work is feverishly underway to repair the breach in the pipe, which has been leaking into the river for days.

Dan River Coal Plant: coal ash basins can be seen adjacent to the river to the southeast. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Dan River Coal Plant: coal ash basins can be seen adjacent to the river to the southeast. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Duke has enlisted a water quality assessment team and notified the local Department of Environment and Natural Resources.  Emergency personnel are also on standby, and thus far there has been no effect on municipal water supplies downstream.

Although Duke has been working to find the most secure way to close the ash basins at the Dan River Plant to prevent any future leaks, the basins still remain open.

Erin Culbert, a spokeswoman for Duke explained on Monday evening that, “We’ve had some temporary solutions that have intermittently worked at times during the day, but we are still working on a short-term solution and the long-term repair.”  It was also reported that the dam separating the ash pond from the river is secure.

This is not the first incidence of serious water pollution we’ve seen resulting from coal, and it won’t be the last.  Luckily, residents of North Carolina are faring better than their neighbors, since their water is still potable, and Duke Energy, along with local authorities aim to keep it that way.  Incidents like this are largely the result of aging and outdated equipment and infrastructure that still hold hazardous material.  Regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the utilities that own these plants need to focus on repairing and securing these facilities before a disaster occurs, rather than just cleaning up the mess created after an inevitable failure, because eventually we’re sure to make a mess we can’t control.

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