News Feature | March 25, 2014

North Carolina Coal Ash Spill: Who's At Fault?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


In the aftermath of the North Carolina coal ash spill, critics want to know who dropped the ball and let it happen. 

One high-profile argument is that the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources failed to do its job and instead served the interests of Duke Energy, the utility that spilled the ash. 

According to the New York Times, the department began taking a soft approach to regulation long before the spill. 

Regulators took the approach of focusing on "customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible," the report said. 

But after the coal ash spill last month that approach came under scrutiny. "When the nation’s largest utility, Duke Energy, spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in early February, [the department's approach suddenly began] playing out in a different light. Federal prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into the spill and the relations between Duke and regulators at the environmental agency," the report said. 

The department initially coordinated with Duke Energy in the aftermath of the spill.

"The agency cooperated closely with Duke Energy, joining the utility in issuing statements that downplayed its severity," the Los Angeles Times reported

But since then the agency has "backed down in the face of public pressure. It also backtracked on initial statements about safe surface-water levels, acknowledging a week after the spill that it had detected unsafe levels of arsenic." 

An agreement between Duke Energy and the department, reached last year, has come under major criticism since the spill. Critics say the deal, which covered the issue of coal ash ponds, was weak and failed to protect the public. "It included a minimal fine but no order that Duke remove the ash — the waste from burning coal to generate electricity — from its leaky, unlined ponds," the New York Times said. 

Is the department taking a tougher approach now?

This month, it cited five power plants owned by Duke Energy "for violating water pollution laws," according to a separate New York Times article. The citations carried the potential for fines up to $25,000 per day for each plant. They charged Duke "with failing to obtain storm-water permits under federal law," the report said. 

The effects of the spill continue to mount. Over a month after the spill, debris was found beyond state borders. A "hazardous materials unit [in Virginia] found coal ash in the Dan River from the massive spill," the Associated Press reported.

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Image credit: "Responders take core sample as ta," © 2014 USFWS/Southeast, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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