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North Carolina coal ash spill raises questions about enforcement of environmental regulations

February 17, 2014 at 6:32 PM EST
In early February more than 50,000 tons of coal ash -- which contains arsenic and other dangerous metals -- leaked from a containment pond into the Dan River in Eden, N.C. Michael Biesecker of the Associated Press joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the disaster and how the spill raises more questions about water safety and the regulators who oversee U.S. industry.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A major spill of toxic coal ash is raising questions again about the safety of water and the government regulators overseeing industry. This time, the accident was reported in North Carolina on February 2, specifically in the Dan River in the city of Eden.

The Duke Energy company said more than 50,000 tons of coal ash had leaked from a containment pond into the river, as seen in these photos taken by the Waterkeeper Alliance. Parts of the river look like a gray sludge. The ash, which contains arsenic and other dangerous metals, is produced from burning coal.

Today, at a state hearing, Duke Energy officials apologized for the spill and said they would clean it up. But big questions remain, including about coal ash containment ponds elsewhere.

Reporter Michael Biesecker has been covering this for the Associated Press. And he joins us now from Raleigh.

Michael Biesecker, first of all, tell us what caused the spill. What is known about that?

MICHAEL BIESECKER, Associated Press: Duke Energy says that a storm water pipe from its coal-fired power plant went under the coal ash pond that contained about 27 acres of coal ash last — Sunday before last, February 2.

That pipe collapsed without warning, and the coal ash from the pond above drained into the river. As you mentioned, they have estimated it anywhere between about 73 Olympic-size swimming pools of coal ash into the river or — they have scaled that back some, but it was clearly one of the largest spill in the nation’s history of its kind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The size of the spill has stabilized?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: They have managed to plug the leak.

There’s concerns about a second pipe that state inspectors are concerned may collapse. Duke Energy is downplaying those concerns, but they say they will plug that second pipe as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are the concerns about this spill into the river?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, the concerns immediately after the spill were about water quality in the downstream community.

Danville, Virginia, which is about 20 miles downstream, draws its drinking water from the Dan River. Fortunately, these metals can be filtered out, the arsenic, the lead, from the water through regular water treatment methods. So the city’s drinking water is considered safe.

Now the concern shifts to the long-term ecological effects on aquatic life, fish and people who use the river.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And concerns about other spills in other locations where this coal ash is stored?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: That’s right.

Duke has 13 other sites in North Carolina that have a total of 30 coal ash ponds. Environmentalists have been concerned about these ponds for a long time. Duke thus far has said that it plans to close some of those ponds, but it’s not yet specified exactly what it means by close.

Its plans may not include actually moving the coal ash away from the river bank. It could be just putting a tarp over the dock.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But now more recently, what you have been reporting on is environmental groups in the state of North Carolina and elsewhere raising questions about whether state regulatory agencies were tough enough on the Duke Energy company and how it monitored this coal ash. What have you been able to find out?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, those concerns have been around and among environmental groups for many years, but they have intensified in the last year since the election in November 2012 of Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican who worked at Duke Energy at 28 years before retiring to run for governor.

The company has been very generous in its contributions to both Governor McCrory’s campaigns and groups that support him, including the Republican Governors Association, about $1.1 million in political donations, all told. And the governor continues to be a shareholder in the company, though he has declined to say exactly what the extent of his holdings of Duke stock are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as I understand it — and he — the governor himself is saying no conflict of interests.

But what is it that these environmental groups are questioning? Because decisions were made — there were environmental groups that were going to file suit against Duke Energy. The state regulatory agency, as I understand it, stepped in and said, no, we will handle it.

MICHAEL BIESECKER: That is correct, Judy.

For many years, environmentalists have reported groundwater contamination through its testing to the state. The state had not done anything. So, in January of this year — of last year, right when Governor McCrory was inaugurated, groups gave notice that they intended to file suit in federal court under the Clean Water Act against one of Duke’s sites.

After that, the state intervened, using its regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act, to take the case to state court. They did that with two additional suits filed by citizens groups before they just went ahead and said that they would file violations in state court against all of Duke’s facilities.

Now, the environmental groups say this effectively blocked them from taking Duke to federal court for far more extensive penalties. The negotiated settlement that the state initially proposed over Duke’s first two locations would have charged the company just $99,000 in fines and included no provisions requiring Duke to clean up its groundwater contamination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I was just going to say the environmental groups are saying that that’s a small amount, considering what they say has taken place.

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Duke is worth $50 billion, so a $99,000 fine, the environmental groups argue, is not an effective deterrent for Duke to stop its pollution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, meanwhile, the environmental groups are saying this needs to be looked into. There’s also a federal investigation.

MICHAEL BIESECKER: That’s right.

We received word last week that federal prosecutors of the Eastern District of North Carolina are conducting a criminal investigation of the spill and have served subpoenas on both the state environmental agency and Duke Energy seeking reams of documents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Michael Biesecker, what happens next?  What are you and other reporters following this story looking at right now?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: We’re continuing to look at the state’s involvement in these negotiations with Duke Energy, other examples where Duke seems to have been able to arrange or lobby for environmental regulations or the enforcement of those regulations that seem to be to its benefit.

We’re also going to be looking at what science says will be the long term effects on this river. Will people be able to canoe in the Dan River this summer?  Will kids be able to swim in it?  There’s two large drink — reservoirs downstream that people use for waterskiing, recreation, boating, fishing.

What impact this spill will have on people’s ability to use that river for recreation remains an unanswered question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Michael Biesecker, who has been reporting on this story since the spill first happened in early February, thank you very much.

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Thank you.