RALEIGH, N.C. — As federal prosecutors launch a criminal investigation into Duke Energy's massive coal ash spill on the Dan River, two North Carolina lawmakers say they will push legislation to force the nation's largest electricity provider to clean out its leaky waste dumps across the state.
State Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca and House Environment Committee Vice-Chairman Chuck McGrady say they will co-sponsor a bill seeking the removal of coal ash dumps like the one that ruptured Feb. 2, spewing toxic sludge into the Dan River and turning the water cloudy and gray for miles.
The two Henderson County Republicans live near Duke's coal-fired plant along the French Broad River south of Asheville, which has two large coal ash lagoons that tests show are contaminating groundwater.
The General Assembly's Environmental Review Commission has scheduled a hearing for Monday where officials from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources are to update legislators about the ongoing clean-up effort. The accident ranks as the third-largest such coal ash spill in the nation's history.
Beyond the one that burst open last week in Eden, Duke has 30 other dumps across the state at its current and retired coal-burning power plants, most located near lakes and rivers. Groundwater monitoring wells at Duke's Asheville show the unlined coal ash dumps at the plant have contaminated groundwater in violation of state health standards for boron, manganese, thallium and selenium.
"We've got the Duke facility in Arden sitting up here with 91 acres of coal ash, and it has always bothered me," Apodaca said. "When I saw the Dan River thing, I said 'We've got to do something.' We've got to get a date certain. We can't keep kicking this down the road."
Such legislation, if approved, would be a sharp turn for North Carolina's regulation of Duke's coal ash dumps, which environmentalists have been complaining for years have been allowed to pollute groundwater without any meaningful penalty from the state.
When citizen groups tried to use the Clean Water Act to sue Duke in federal court last year, the state agency intervened three times to use its authority to issue violations over the pollution in state court.
After negotiating with the company's lawyers behind closed doors, the state proposed a settlement that would allow Duke — the nation's largest electricity provider — to settle violations at facilities near Asheville and Charlotte for $99,111. That deal, which was scuttled this week in the wake of the Dan River spill, included no requirement that Duke actually clean up its pollution.
On Monday, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh issued subpoenas to Duke and the state environmental agency demanding reams of documents related to the spill and the prior regulation of the company's coal ash sites.
In a written statement last week, Duke said it is committed to closing the ash basins at "many" of its 14 coal plants across North Carolina that are no longer in service, including the Dan River facility. The company said it is transitioning to a more environmentally sound method for disposing of coal waste.
While it is studying the issue, however, Duke said it has no timetable for removing the waste from its leaky unlined ponds. One option, the company said, would be to cover the dumps with giant tarps to block rainwater.
Rep. McGrady, a former national president of the Sierra Club, said that isn't good enough. He wants Duke to pump out the toxic coal sludge and move it somewhere safer.
"We need a long-term strategy to get out of the coal ash pond business," he said. "It's not unlike the issue of hog lagoons a decade ago. Unfortunately, sometimes we wait until we have a really big problem before we address it. Here we have an opportunity to assess the problem, develop a plan and systematically move forward."