COMMENTARY BY: GRACE TATTER
Four reasons you should still care about the Duke Energy Coal Ash spill
On Feb. 2, ash from one of Duke Energy’s coal ash dumps coated 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic, gray, sludge. Wake Forest University researchers found that the amount of coal ash dumped into the river, which cuts through the northwestern part of the state, could fill 32 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The spill was almost three months ago, but the cleanup could take decades. Here are five reasons the spill is still relevant to anyone who lives in or loves North Carolina.
1) It caused $700 million of damage. Yes, you read that right. The News-Record (Greensboro) reports that Dennis Lemly, a biology professor at Wake Forest University and fish biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, computed that figure by considering the loss of revenue from outdoor recreation along the 70-mile stretch affected by the spill, lower property values along the river, the value of fish and wildlife that otherwise would have been sold and consumed, the cost of losing a diverse ecosystem, and extensive cleanup. The $700 million figure is the long-term cost; Lemly estimates that the costs of damages in the Dan River Basin are already up to $70 million. Unfortunately, the Wake Forest researchers who have been dedicating their time to analyzing the extent of the coal ash spill (using drones!) cannot do so indefinitely, said Max Messinger, a Wake Forest masters student who is researching the spill.
So far, Duke Energy has not responded to Wake’s research about the magnitude of the spill, and been slow to begin cleanup. This leaves regular citizens with the task of picking up the tab. A recent fundraiser at Wake Forest University raised $12,000 for clean up, an impressive number for a fundraiser, but ultimately a drop in the bucket.
2) Small towns are hurting. There are two North Carolinas: One centered around metropolitan centers like Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham that have enjoyed economic prosperity in recent decades, and rural North Carolina, which has seen company after company leave, taking thousands of jobs with them. Towns in the Dan River Basin were just starting to recover from the loss of North Carolina’s textile industry by developing a tourism industry of outdoor recreation on the Dan River. Emily Wilson, a Winston-Salem based activist and writer, has deep ties to the Dan River Basin. Her husband’s family has lived in Rockingham County for more than a century, and her son is raising his four children there today. Wilson said the attention to the spill from the national and international media is a mixed bag for residents along the river in North Carolina and Virginia. “They very much want to hold Duke Energy accountable,” Wilson says. “At the same time, they’re just withering under the bad publicity.”
3) It begs the question: How do we want to get our energy? Duke Energy merged with Progress last year, making it the nation’s largest regulated utility provider.
It is now essentially the only energy provider in North Carolina. North Carolina law forbids third-party energy generators to sell energy, so North Carolinians have no other option when it comes to purchasing energy — even if they don’t agree with the company’s business practices. Accordingly, Kathy Clark, a resident of Greensboro, began organizing “Ash Wednesdays” in March, in which concerned North Carolinians turn off their power breakers between 7 and 7:30 in an attempt to reduce Duke’s profits.
The regulatory committee that keeps Duke Energy in check was appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, bringing me to my next point.
4) The coal ash spill might tell us a lot about how the state government of North Carolina works.
Gov. Pat McCrory worked for Duke Energy for nearly three decades prior to becoming governor of North Carolina. Duke Energy contributed large amounts of money to his campaign, and he still is a shareholder in the company. Following the coal ash spill, McCrory forcefully announced that his former employer should take responsibility for the clean up. On Feb. 17, he said,
“Yeah, that ongoing concern is, first of all, [Duke Energy leaders] have got to fix what’s broken. And they’ve got to have a long-term solution of moving the ash ponds so they don’t cause long-term issues with our water anywhere in North Carolina and, frankly, with our neighboring states. They’ve got to come up with a long-term solution quickly on how to deal with the ash ponds at several sites throughout North Carolina.”
But North Carolina’s Environmental Management Commission, more than half of who were appointed by McCrory, appealed a Superior Court that stipulated the company must begin cleanup immediately earlier this month. Duke Energy lawyers also appealed the court decision.
The relationship between the company and the state government are suspicious enough that they’ve spurred a federal grand jury investigation of state oversight of Duke Energy.