On November 4, 2009, Duke Energy lobbyist Bill Tyndall walked into the White House and met with Obama Administration officials to discuss whether coal ash should be regulated in the wake of the TVA coal ash spill disaster that had happened 10 months previously. There’s no transcript of that meeting, but public statements and the documents that he and other lobbyists brought with them indicate that he probably said something like this:
“Coal ash is a non-hazardous, useful byproduct of burning coal. It poses no threat to human health and safety, and in fact can be used in all kinds of positive ways, like in agriculture and construction. Don’t do anything to regulate it – that would cost us money and hurt the economy.”
That’s nonsense, of course, the kind of thing that lobbyists say to protect their employers’ profit margins. Coal ash is highly toxic, containing chemicals like arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals that lead to cancer and other health problems.
But Duke Energy got its way. Despite strong public outrage after the TVA coal ash tragedy, EPA has essentially sat on its hands for the past four years, delaying the publication of a simple and common-sense rule that would label coal ash as hazardous waste and force utilities like Duke to clean up the mess they create when they burn coal.
Now Duke Energy is responsible for the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. Its coal ash dump near Eden, NC has been leaking grey, toxic sludge into the Dan River since Sunday. The utility still hasn’t been able to stop the leak, and doesn’t seem to know how. Yesterday the company admitted that it hadn’t even known what the burst pipe responsible for the spill was made of. The nearest city is saying its drinking water is still okay, but it has been relying on Duke Energy to do the testing, which is troubling to say the least. Other downstream cities in Virginia have stopped taking drinking water from the river as a precaution. And regardless of the drinking water safety, there’s no telling what kind of damage will be caused to the Dan River’s ecosystem; the river’s ability to support fishing, recreation and aquatic life may be severely compromised.
The Dan River spill could have been prevented if EPA had acted back in 2009, heeding the voices of scientists and the public instead of calls for delay from Duke’s lobbyists. If EPA had acted quickly and assertively, Duke would have been required to clean up unlined dumps like the one currently spilling into the Dan River. But Duke and other utilities’ hooks were into the Administration too deep. We learned a few months after Tyndall’s 2009 meeting that a front group for Duke Energy and other utilities, the American Coal Ash Association, had lobbied the EPA so effectively on this issue that they had ghostwritten every single EPA publication on the subject of coal ash.
Utilities were able to delay the rule long enough that it became a political hot potato before the 2012 presidential election, causing yet more delay.
Last Thursday, EPA finally announced that it would release its coal ash rule by the end of 2014, though it was far too late to protect the communities near the Dan River. Just 48 hours later, the pipe under Duke’s dump broke, sending up to 677 train cars worth of ash into the river.
For the people living on that river, Duke’s political dirt will be washing up on their shores for a long time to come.