A wakeup call sometimes comes in the form of disaster. When it does, the alarm is loud and scary. Just ask our neighbors in North Carolina. The Associated Press reported Monday that flooded rivers from Hurricane Florence’s drenching rains have swamped coal ash dumps and low-lying hog farms, raising pollution concerns as the swollen waterways approached their crests.
North Carolina environmental regulators say several open-air manure pits at hog farms have failed, spilling pollution. State officials also were monitoring the breach of a Duke Energy coal ash landfill near Wilmington.
Fortunately, hog farm pollution has not been a major problem in East Tennessee. As for coal ash, East Tennesseans are well aware of the dangers of landfills that hold the leftover debris of coal-fired power plants.
Duke Energy said Monday the flow had stopped and cleanup work had begun at the retired L.V. Sutton Power Station near Wilmington after a weekend collapse of the coal ash landfill. The power company said a full assessment of how much ash escaped from the water-slogged landfill is ongoing but initially estimated Saturday that about 2,000 cubic yards of ash were displaced, enough to fill about 180 dump trucks.
Compare that to the Kingston TVA coal ash spill on Dec. 22, 2008. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated about 4.5 million cubic yards of coal ash was released into Swan Pond Embayment and three adjacent sloughs, eventually spilling into the main Emory River channel in that environmental disaster.
It was the largest coal-related slurry spill in U.S. history. The volume of sludge released was 101 times the volume of oil released in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, according to EPA.
The Kingston Fossil Plant had received a total of 6.48 inches of rain Dec. 1-22, 2008. Compare that to Florence’s more than 30 inches of rain that broke all-time records.
AP reported that Duke’s handling of ash waste has faced intense scrutiny since a drainage pipe collapsed under a waste pit at an old plant in Eden in 2014, triggering a massive spill that coated 70 miles (110 kilometers) of the Dan River in gray sludge. The utility later agreed to plead guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations and pay $102 million in fines and restitution for illegally discharging pollution from ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants. It plans to close all its ash dumps by 2029.
Environmentalists have warned for decades that Duke’s coal ash ponds were vulnerable to severe storms, potentially threatening drinking water supplies and public safety.
“Duke Energy should learn its lesson from this latest coal ash failure, and pledge today that it will remove all its coal ash from dangerous unlined riverfront pits,” Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the AP. “If Duke Energy’s newly designed and built landfill cannot withstand floodwaters, there is even more reason to fear Duke Energy’s continued disposal of coal ash in unlined riverfront pits.”
Lesson learned in North Carolina? They’ll see. As for Tennessee, we can only hope — and have the right to demand — that TVA has taken its own massive coal ash disaster as motivation to embrace the words: Never again.